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Colorado progressives begrudgingly turn toward John Hickenlooper after U.S. Senate primary victory

The question of whether the Democratic Party can unite supporters of Andrew Romanoff is particularly key given the states of the races against Cory Gardner

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to Democratic voters at a caucus site in Denver on March 7, 2020. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)
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John Hickenlooper is now the best hope for progressive Democrats to make meaningful change in November’s election on climate change, race and health care. And they’re not too happy about it. 

“At this time, the most Hickenlooper will get out of me is my vote in November,” said Tay Anderson, Denver Public School board member who endorsed rival Andrew Romanoff in Tuesday’s primary. “I do not say that lightly.”

The paradox is that Hickenlooper, an establishment-backed Democrat, needs progressives who supported Romanoff as much as they need him. To defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in November, Hickenlooper must coalesce support from the left side of the party — a challenge that is more important than ever given the stakes and one that may prove tough given the Democrat’s history.

The diverse coalition of environmental and social justice activists in Colorado at the core of the party have long scorned Hickenlooper and even organized protests against him at the national party convention in 2016, in large part for his close ties with the oil and gas industry. In the primary election, these activists once again shunned Hickenlooper citing his state ethics violations and racially insensitive actions, and aligned with Romanoff, a vocal backer of the Green New Deal.

“As a moderate, he’s out of sync because as Colorado has moved to the left and not become quite the swing state — more of a liberal Democrat-leaning state — the party itself has moved to the left,” Floyd Ciruli, a University of Denver public opinion expert, said on a recent “Political Junkie” podcast.

MORE: John Hickenlooper claims decisive win despite stumbles in Democratic primary for U.S. Senate

Hickenlooper won 60% of the vote and all but one county in the primary, including top progressive territories.

But interviews with more than a dozen voters and progressive activists about the primary election revealed lingering wariness about Hickenlooper among Colorado progressives and an open question about whether they will rally to his side. Many said they still planned to vote for Hickenlooper, but would not commit to helping the campaign or publicly supporting his bid.

Alvina Vasquez, the political director for Gov. Jared Polis’ progressive-minded campaign in 2018, said the question of whether voters will show up for Hickenlooper is a significant one. The question is amplified by the candidate at the top of the ticket against President Donald Trump. The presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, largely aligns with Hickenlooper on the issues.

“They have to make their case — because they are not necessarily running against Trump, they are running against sitting at home and not voting,” said Vasquez, an informal adviser to Hiceknlooper’s campaign.

Hickenlooper says he can unite Democrats on the larger goals

The desire for unity is one of the first topics Hickenlooper mentioned as he declared victory Tuesday. The stakes are too high for the party to split, he said.

The contest against Gardner is a critical piece of Democrats’ strategy to reclaim the U.S. Senate, where they need to flip four seats to claim a majority, or three if Biden wins the White House.

“We may differ with some people on the different paths on how to get to these larger visions, but we align pretty strongly on all the different visions,” Hickenlooper said in an interview on election night.  

Moments after the primary was called in his favor, he said he was considering how to make the appeal to Romanoff’s supporters on some of the election’s key issues. “I want to hear them and really hear them — listen to them,” he said. “And I want to try and show them that we agree on most of the core issues.”

But listening may not lead to a leftward policy shift. Hickenlooper said he didn’t believe he moved to the left during the primary and said he tries to operate independently in the policy space, without paying too much attention to what’s politically fashionable. “I try to navigate based on the celestial stars of my own values,” he said. 

Drawing the support of progressive activists who can help turn out votes could serve as a significant boon to Hickenlooper’s election prospects. The progressive movement has been growing in Colorado as demographic change has made the state less white. Progressive candidates and statewide ballot measures — ranging from marijuana legalization in 2012 to a hike in the minimum wage in 2016 — have found success in recent years. Colorado’s 2018 blue wave that gave Democrats complete control of state government was the latest signal. 

Romanoff, a pragmatic dealmaker during his tenure as a state lawmaker, embraced progressive staples like “Medicare for All” and won endorsements from groups including the Bernie Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution, and the climate-focused 350.org and the Sunrise Movement. 

Democrat Andrew Romanoff, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado, attended the climate strike protest in Denver on Sept. 20, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In his concession speech broadcast online, Romanoff pledged his “full support” to defeating Gardner and helping Hickenlooper get elected. He urged his supporters to do “exactly the same thing.” He had promised throughout his campaign to support Hickenlooper in the general election if he lost. 

“For all the differences that we had, and there were many in this race, I am equally committed to making sure that Cory Gardner is a one term senator and that John Hickennlooper replaces him in November,” Romanoff said to his supporters.

A decade ago, Sen. Michael Bennet’s campaign faced the same question after he defeated Romanoff in the Democratic primary. The bad blood between the two camps took a long time to heal and plenty of outreach calls and even a unity news conference to mend fences.

“People will still have hurt feelings,” said Craig Hughes, a Democratic strategist who was Bennet’s campaign manager in 2010. “Primaries are hard. When you support a candidate, you really do put your entire emotional being behind that candidate.”

Still, Hughes expects the party to unite behind beating Gardner this year without question. “The stakes are so high — you’re talking Supreme Court justices, you’re talking a Democratic agenda,” he said. “I think most progresssive folks will absolutely come around.”

Disdain for Gardner is driving many to the polls, but not necessarily to lead the charge

But Hickenlooper’s unwillingness to endorse those Green New Deal and single-payer health care has made progressives wary about supporting him in November. The ideological rift may make it difficult for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backed Romanoff in the primary, to support Hickenlooper in the general election.

“Our goal is to build progressive power, and Hickenlooper has attacked two of the main ideas that progressives are rallying around right now,” said spokeswoman Maria Langholz. 

The group understands that Democrats will likely need to flip Colorado’s seat in order to claim the Senate, she said, but it’s not the committee’s job to elect Democrats. The group is still deciding on whether it will mobilize its members on Hickenlooper’s behalf. “He just has not given progressives reasons to believe that he is going to be aligned with them,” Langholz said. 

Tay Anderson, a Denver School Board director, speaks to a crowd outside the Colorado Capitol on May 30, 2020 at a protest over George Floyd’s death. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Anderson, the Romanoff backer who was a prominent figure in the racial equity protests, said he’s “disturbed” by parts of Hickenlooper’s record, in particular the candidate’s comments on race. “He has made a lot of missteps,” Anderson said.  

Anderson signaled he may be willing to help Hickenlooper, but he wants to see some changes first. “Until he can go through a deep, intensive equity training and I know that he is ensuring that he is being an ally for Black folks in the state of Colorado, I cannot get out there and go hard on the pavement for him,” he said.

One of Hickenlooper’s most vocal critics, former state Rep. Joe Salazar, said he will vote for the Democratic nominee. “Cory Gardner is probably the worst elected official in the history of the state of Colorado,” he said.

But it’s a different story for Colorado Rising, a group Salazar leads that is opposed to fracking. Hickenlooper is unlikely to get its endorsement. “As an organization we can’t just go around supporting someone who made a mess out of Colorado in terms of fracking,” Salazar said.

Amy Gray, a board member for 350 Action, the campaign arm of the environment group 350.org, said the group was “100% opposed to Hickenlooper” in the primary. “He is completely unfit for Senate and shouldn’t be representing people of color in Colorado,” she said.

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She said she was appalled by photos showing Hickenlooper wearing Native American headdress as part of the One Shot Antelope Hunt in Wyoming. 350 Action signed an open letter calling on Hickenlooper to drop out of the race.  

Gray won’t vote for Hickenlooper in the fall. “That’s akin to asking me if I would vote for Trump,” she said.

Likewise, Corey Donahue, a 37-year-old unaffiliated voter in Boulder who supported Romanoff, said Hickenlooper is just “Gardner-lite” and he can’t support him.

“I don’t drink Coors or Coors Light, so I wouldn’t vote for the politicians that represent them,” Donahue said. “It’s the same thing.”

Other organizations are split on the question about whether to support Hickenlooper.

Our Revolution — which aligns itself with Sanders, the former presidential candidate — mobilized for Romanoff in the primary, making phone calls and distributing campaign materials. 

Anthony Maro, who leads the group’s Colorado Springs chapter, said he was less certain they would do the same for Hickenlooper in the general election. He says he still has a hard time trusting Hickenlooper and thought it might be difficult to support a candidate who doesn’t support the same issues. “We’re fighting the establishment leadership in the Democratic Party,” he said. “It comes down to trust.”

But Gary Kahn, co-leader for the Metro Denver chapter, said the group is likely to organize behind Hickenlooper, prioritizing the need to defeat Gardner over ideological purity. 

“We think it’s very important to get Gardner out,” Kahn said. “That’s going to be everyone’s objective.”

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