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The Democratic candidates competing in the June party primary for U.S. Senate are Andrew Romanoff, left, and John Hickenlooper, right. (Colorado Sun photo illustration)

John Hickenlooper escaped with a clear victory in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Colorado on Tuesday, defeating rival Andrew Romanoff after national Democrats and a big-money super PAC boosted his beleaguered campaign.

The former Colorado governor showed a comfortable advantage in the early returns with 60% of the vote, according to preliminary vote tallies at 8 p.m. The Associated Press projected his victory 23 minutes after polls closed. 

“We have to say enough is enough. We must come together to reclaim our country,” Hickenlooper said in a victory speech. He added: “I’ve never lost an election in this state and I don’t intend to lose this one — there is far too much at stake.”

Hickenlooper will face Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in November — one of the most closely watched races in the nation and a must-win for Democrats to take control of the chamber.

“Hickenlooper won his primary with a landslide against a substantive opponent and despite late gaffes,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and a prominent election forecaster, on Twitter. He added that President Donald Trump “will fare rather badly in Colorado, and that makes Gardner’s climb very steep.”

And Hickenlooper says his wide margin of victory shows that he has the support of Coloradans.

“I think the election, the turnout showed that my relationship and my history, fighting side by side with leaders in the state of Colorado, is not something that people are going to cast aside based on some attack ads,” he said in an interview after the race was called.

The Democratic race drove record turnout in the typically low-profile primary, the second-ever statewide contest in Colorado to allow the participation of unaffiliated voters. Many cast ballots earlier than normal, in part to avoid in-person voting or ballot drop off amid the pandemic. 

In Denver and Boulder — two Democratic-heavy counties and crucial harbingers of the vote — the first batch of counted ballots showed Hickenlooper with solid leads in turf where Romanoff needed to do well. Across the state, the early returns showed Hickenlooper leading in all but one county.

Romanoff conceded the race shortly before 8 p.m. and pledged to support Hickenlooper despite their differences in the race. “The causes that we champion will go on — not with me in the U.S. Senate, but with other elected officials,” Romanoff said in a four-minute concession speech broadcast online.

At the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver, Sarah Voelkel backed Hickenlooper because she thinks he’s better positioned for the November election. Romanoff, she said, leans too far left to attract broad support. 

“I voted for Hickenlooper because I feel like he is going to be the best candidate to take the Democratic seat in the Senate over the Republican (candidate) versus Andrew, who is a little bit younger and wants a lot of transformation, which I don’t think people are going to go for,” Voelkel said.

Tim Quealy, his scooter humming beneath him, did the same and stayed at the ballot box to salute fellow voters in the mountain community of Eagle. “John came to Eagle, and I got to shake his hand and speak with him. I feel like I know him. I like him,” Quealy said. “It’s going to be a race, but I do think John has the best chance to beat Cory. I think he’ll make a good senator.”

Hickenlooper suffered setbacks and recast the campaign in final weeks

Hickenlooper, a moderate who touted his “evolution rather than revolution” approach, banked his campaign on his electability as a familiar name who led the state as governor at a time of major economic growth and job creation.

But in the end, he needed more energy to keep pace with Romanoff, the former state House speaker and mental health advocate who took more progressive stances on climate change, health care and the economic recovery from the recession. Hickenlooper recast himself as a change agent and moved to the political left to support paid family sick leave for workers, the national popular vote to elect presidents and an end to oil and gas drilling by 2050 — all positions he once opposed.

The polls entering the final weeks showed Hickenlooper with a clear lead but a closer-than-expected race given earlier forecasts that showed him with a 2-1 advantage. 

In the final weeks, national Democratic allies — who lured Hickenlooper into the race after a failed presidential bid — and a super PAC that has not disclosed its donors spent $4 million on television advertising to boost his image and blunt attacks from Republicans, who spent big to influence the primary. Hickenlooper’s campaign spent another $1.7 million on TV ads, more than double the $780,000 from Romanoff’s campaign.

Hickenlooper’s campaign weathered a cloud of controversy starting with a contempt citation and two ethics violations and then a succession of gaffes on the topic of race after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Even his victory is shadowed by a lingering controversy about his participation in an event that some said demeaned Indigenous women and Native Americans.

On the eve of the primary, Hickenlooper declined to address his involvement in the One Shot Antelope Hunt and the campaign canceled a tentative event Tuesday where Hickenlooper planned to cast his ballot.

Romanoff hit Hickenlooper hard on his ethics troubles and ties to corporate interests, particularly the oil and gas industry, rallying support from environmental activists. He called the Green New Deal “the heart of his campaign” and backed the “Medicare for All” plan put forward by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But his past as a centrist leader in Colorado in the 1990s and support for an immigration bill that he called a mistake kept national progressive leaders from backing his campaign. 

Just as his campaign peaked, Romanoff left Colorado to be with his family in Ohio as his father’s health failed. He continued virtual campaign events when possible. Marvin Romanoff, 80, a former municipal court judge, died Sunday after a series of strokes and falls, the candidate announced.

“This is obviously not the outcome we are hoping for. Frankly this is not the week I was hoping for,” he said in a video chat from Ohio. “I’ve learned this week there are far more important things than losing an election.”

Ethics troubles drove voters to Romanoff, but he couldn’t capitalize

Jodi Pyle, a 56-year-old unaffiliated voter in Aurora, said she liked both candidates, but she was bothered by the way Hickenlooper handled the ethics case. It helped persuade her to support Romanoff.

“I didn’t like that he skipped by it,” she said, referring to Hickenlooper’s decision to defy a subpoena and court order to testify. “I thought it was really important not to break the law and he was just, ‘It’s not a big deal.’ … So that swayed me quite a bit.”

Olivia Mahan, a 27-year-old from Pueblo who is transgender and has disabilities, believed that either Democrat could beat Gardner in November, so opted to vote Romanoff for his progressive values. 

“Were this a closer (general) election, I might opt for the safe, centrist option of Hickenlooper but I don’t believe we are in that position,” Mahan said. “… And I believe Bernie (Sanders) winning the primary here indicates that progressive candidates may be viable in Colorado.”

Michael Davis, a 21-year-old unaffiliated voter from Castle Rock, said Hickenlooper’s experience outweighed the ethical concerns about his decision to take corporate-paid travel as governor in violation of the state constitution.

“It’s like he took a private jet somewhere, what’s the huge deal about that?” Davis said about allegations against Hickenlooper. “It’s just that I’ve seen his name more, I know he has experience since he was the previous governor, so I just felt comfortable with it.”

Democratic voter Stephanie Conlon was discouraged by Hickenlooper’s recent stumbles in conversations about race and said he has a lot of work to do. But she supported him in the end.

“I do believe that if he’s willing to admit those mistakes, that kind of draws a parallel to any of us who are stumbling when we talk about race,” the Denver resident said.

And like other voters, she had her eye on November. “I feel like he has done a really good job in the past,” she added. “I feel like he’s engaged with the community enough, and I really want the Senate seats to be blue and I feel like he just has the best chance.”

Staff writers Jason Blevins, Erica Breunlin, Lauren Irwin, Evan Ochsner, Jesse Paul and Kevin Simpson contributed to this report.

John Frank

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