By now, the pattern is familiar.

A progressive candidate captures the imagination of Colorado’s Democratic Party activists, dominates the caucuses and emerges from the state assembly with top billing on the primary ballot. Then a better-funded establishment candidate takes over the airwaves, wins the party primary and goes on to be elected.

It happened in 2010, when former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff won the activists and lost the primary to appointed U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

Dave Krieger. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

It happened in 2018, when former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy won the activists and lost the primary to now-Gov. Jared Polis.

And now, running an unorthodox campaign in an election cycle dominated by the novel coronavirus, Romanoff is back, running for the U.S. Senate once more, trying to prevent history from repeating itself. (Disclosure: I did three weeks of volunteer work for Romanoff’s policy shop during the winter of 2018-19 when I was out of journalism.)

Romanoff beat former Gov. John Hickenlooper soundly in the party caucuses. But Hickenlooper has the support of the national Democratic Party establishment and its deep-pocketed donors. The local Democratic Party-aligned pollsters are so closely tied to Hickenlooper — one of the principals managed his 2010 gubernatorial campaign — that Romanoff doesn’t even appear in their polls.

The latest survey showed Hickenlooper with an 18-point lead over incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. It failed even to ask voters about a Romanoff-Gardner matchup.

Indeed, another principal of the Hick-friendly pollsters declared ethics complaints against the former governor “a nothing burger” on Friday, just hours before the state ethics commission sustained two of the complaints.

While Hickenlooper’s boosters framed those complaints as a partisan attack, Romanoff noted it was the ethics commission, not the complainants, who found he had violated the law in two instances.

One of those instances highlighted Hickenlooper’s relationship with Larry Mizel, chairman and CEO of M.D.C. Holdings, a Denver-based homebuilder, who is also a fundraiser for President Trump.

Romanoff says he has seen polling showing a generic Democrat beating Gardner handily, which would remove the No. 1 rationale for Hick’s candidacy — that he has the best chance of flipping the seat. But it looks as if the party establishment is so loyal to Hickenlooper that it will not provide data that might support a more progressive candidate’s case.

When Hickenlooper said he wasn’t interested in running for the Senate and launched a long-shot presidential bid 15 months ago, a herd of well-known Colorado Democrats got into the Senate race. When Hick’s presidential campaign fizzled and he changed his mind five months later, all but one — Romanoff — dropped out.

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“I am either resilient or slow to take a hint,” Romanoff told me last week. “But to be perfectly blunt, when John said he would be a terrible senator and hate the job, I believed him. In fact, I quote him a lot now.

“There’s nothing I’ve seen from his campaign since then that has persuaded me that he would be a better senator. And frankly, there’s nobody who’s supporting him who’s made that case to me, either. They might say he has more money or better name recognition, but almost nobody I can think of has said, ‘I’m supporting him because I think he would be a better senator than you would.’”

Much of the campaign so far has been a Where’s Waldo exercise as Hickenlooper has ducked confrontations with his opponents, running the rope-a-dope strategy that favorites often employ. Romanoff counts 19 forums or debates that Hick has skipped.

“He said at one point he had scheduling conflicts, but if you skip 19 debates, it’s a little hard to believe that,” Romanoff said. “I’m talking about Colorado College, UCCS, Metro, Regis, the NAACP, Progressive Veterans of El Paso County. All these groups had debates, almost all the other candidates showed up, he didn’t send a surrogate, he didn’t offer an explanation.

“I want to put this as plainly as I can. If you can’t be bothered to show up when you’re running, when you actually need something from voters, like their votes, why would we expect you to show up when you don’t? If you tell us you’d be terrible at the job, you’d hate it, and you do everything possible to prove it, then we shouldn’t be surprised, we shouldn’t be allowed any buyer’s remorse if we elect you anyway.”

Although you might expect two Democrats to be closer to each other on the issues than to the incumbent, Romanoff argues that on the major questions of the day, he’s on one side and Hickenlooper and Gardner are on the other:

  • Romanoff supports Medicare for All, a single-payer health care system. Both Hickenlooper and Gardner oppose it.
  • Romanoff supports the Green New Deal, a package of proposals focused on climate change and the conversion to a carbon-free economy. Hickenlooper and Gardner oppose it.

Only one fact might disturb the comfortable complacency with which the Democratic Party establishment views the June 30 primary:

Bernie Sanders won not only the presidential preference vote at caucuses in 2016, he won the Colorado presidential primary in 2020 with Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and condemnation of widening income and wealth inequality leading his platform.

“It is hard to imagine the folks who voted for Sen. Sanders and Sen. (Elizabeth) Warren, who accounted for a majority of the primary vote, signing on with a candidate who opposed most of the things they were running on,” Romanoff said.

“And not only opposed it, but compared their platform, and these are John’s words, to the discredited ideas of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin. I mean, he got to the right of Cory Gardner, which is not easy to do. That kind of demagoguery would be laughable if it weren’t so counter-productive.

“And it also begs the question, as I’ll ask John next week, if Medicare for All is socialism, what does that make Medicare? Or Social Security? Or public education? Or infrastructure?”

Romanoff has employed an unusual strategy during a campaign restricted by the coronavirus. He and his staff have texted hundreds of thousands of Colorado voters to open up lines of communication. He estimates the response rate at about 10%. He interrupted our conversation to respond to a text from a Colorado voter currently living in a car.

“A lot of the voters I text don’t believe it’s me,” he said. “They demand a selfie or they want me to send them a photo of a newspaper with the date on it or they think I’m a robot or a staffer or an intern or a volunteer. But I believe the kind of campaign you run says something about the kind of public official you’ll be.”

Romanoff contends the pandemic has increased the urgency of enacting universal health coverage.

“It was, I think, a compelling argument before the pandemic hit because we had 72 million Americans uninsured or underinsured,” he said. “Now up to another 43 million Americans stand to lose their employer-based coverage. So, to my mind at least, basing your health insurance on your job was never a great idea. Now it’s a disaster, and John and Cory are both with the insurance industry in this argument.”

The stretch run of the campaign to the June 30 primary begins this week. Mail-in ballots go out Monday and there will be back-to-back televised debates on 9News and CBS4 (co-hosted by The Colorado Sun and PBS12).

Romanoff will finally have an opportunity to debate Hickenlooper, albeit remotely. He knows what he’s up against.

“It is true that the national political establishment has put its thumb on the scale, and I don’t underestimate the advantage that gives John,” he said.

“I feel like there’s a mechanical argument and a moral argument. If we just continue to fill Senate seats with the highest bidder, we’ll get the government that we’ve got and both parties will continue to be corrupted by corporate cash and sell out the interests of their constituents in favor of their corporate donors. That’s one of the reasons I’m not standing down just because of party demand.”

Recent history tells us it is hard enough in normal times for the progressive underdog to prevail in a primary where money can make ubiquity more important than message. Romanoff is trying to do something unprecedented: pull off the upset on the strength of digital substitutes for door-knocking and speeches, selfies and rallies.

“Nobody’s ever campaigned in a pandemic before; I don’t know how this plays out,” he said.

“We’re testing the proposition that a grassroots, retail, PAC-free, people-powered campaign can compete with and beat a corporate campaign on the other side.”

Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger

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Dave Krieger

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