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U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff attended a Democratic forum in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

John Hickenlooper’s cavalcade of blunders in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate is giving his rival Andrew Romanoff a fighting chance.

Romanoff’s campaign released an internal poll Thursday showing him down ahead of the June 30 election, but significantly shortening the gap on Hickenlooper, the former two-term governor who barely managed to win support from half the likely Democratic primary voters.

Hickenlooper stood at 51% compared to 39% for Romanoff, according to the survey from Myers Research conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, a comfortable lead but one Romanoff says he can close. The margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.

“The bottom line here is that Romanoff has seized the momentum, and he is well positioned to pull off a remarkable upset in this contest,” said veteran Democratic pollster Andrew Myers.

Hickenlooper’s campaign issued a statement that highlighted their double-digit lead, saying it reflects the candidate’s “record of bringing people together to deliver big, progressive change to Colorado.”

It’s unusual for a candidate to release a poll showing him behind by double-digits, but for Romanoff the new numbers represent a major shift that may give him a fundraising boost and momentum heading into the final 12 days of the election. Even his pollster admits that Romanoff needs to keep up the pressure to win.

“Romanoff will need to continue to introduce himself and his vision for Colorado and the nation while also reminding voters of Hickenlooper’s failings and his reticence to even want the job of serving in the Senate,” Myers said. “Should Romanoff keep the momentum he clearly has today, this is likely to be a stunning upset.”

In recent months, other private polls showed Romanoff losing 2 to 1. And in October, an internal poll conducted by the Romanoff campaign showed him losing by nearly 50 percentage points to Hickenlooper in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup.

Hickenlooper ran as favored son but now faces a tougher race

Hickenlooper is the favored candidate of national Democrats who have pumped big money into his campaign because they consider him the best to beat Republican incumbent Cory Gardner, a key race on the road to retaking the U.S. Senate. For months, Hickenlooper ran on his name recognition from two terms as Denver mayor and eight years as governor, keeping an eye on November rather than the party primary.

Romanoff, by comparison, is the lesser-known former state House speaker who left office in 2008 and lost two major races in the last decade. He reinvented himself for the 2020 campaign as the most progressive candidate, backing proposals such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, but so far he’s struggled to catch fire. 

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to reporters on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, the day he announced he was running for U.S. Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In campaign finance numbers released Thursday, Romanoff raised $710,000 from April through June 10 — his best report of the campaign. Hickenlooper’s campaign said he raised $3.7 million but had not yet filed a report.

All along, political observers expected the race to narrow as more Democrats and unaffiliated voters received mail ballots and began to pay attention, but the absence of public polling left the campaign’s status a mystery.

MORE: Where Hickenlooper and Romanoff split on major policies in Democratic U.S. Senate primary

The major shift in numbers is more reflective of Hickenlooper’s mistakes in recent weeks. He refused to comply with a subpoena to testify on six allegations made by Republicans that he accepted illegal gifts as governor and became the first public official ever held in contempt by the state’s independent ethics commission. The panel later found him in violation for accepting a ride on a corporate jet owned by a major political donor and taking a luxury limousine at a ritzy conference in Italy.

At the same time, Hickenlooper found himself on the defensive for an insensitive comment regarding Black Lives Matter and other missteps on the issue of race. Gardner and a national Republican committee backing his reelection pounced and began running big-money TV ads blasting Hickenlooper.

A rough few weeks in the campaign shifted the tide for Romanoff

The Romanoff campaign poll found 71% reported hearing about Hickenlooper in recent weeks and split on whether it made them more or less likely to support him. By comparison, Romanoff is getting more positive attention in recent days amid televised debates and other attention on the race.

“Hickenlooper has put this (race) in play but it shouldn’t be in play,” Floyd Ciruli, director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver, said during an online political forum Wednesday.

“I would agree, Hickenlooper turned this into a race with self-inflicted wounds,” added Democratic consultant Sheila MacDonald, who also spoke at the event.

EXPLORE: Where John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff stand on dozens of issues in the Democratic Senate race

Romanoff sent a fundraising email Thursday afternoon seizing on the poll’s news and asking supporters to keep the momentum going.

“Hick’s support is crumbling,” he wrote. “The evidence is clear: We’re closing the gap and poised to win.”

The campaign declined to release the full results of the poll to The Colorado Sun, but the pollster read all the questions and detailed the methodology in a lengthy interview. The live-caller survey asked the head-to-head polling question near the start and before testing negative messages against Hickenlooper later in the survey.

The poll is predicated on a primary turnout that is 70% Democrat and 30% unaffiliated, which is roughly on par with the results in the 2018 election. It also anticipates an older and diverse electorate with 61% of those who vote older than 50 and Latino turnout at 19% of the total.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.