SubscribeAvailable Now
Photo illustration by Sean Parsons; Source photos: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/the Denver Post via Getty Images (Hickenlooper); Michael Ciagl/Stringer/Getty Images (Gardner); Getty Images (Capitol); Wikimedia Commons (flag)

How National Forces Shaped the Colorado Democratic Senate Primary

What was once a wide-open race has likely become an inevitable march to a Hickenlooper nomination. Was it all politics as usual?

 •  

Early last summer, the candidates running in Colorado’s Democratic Senate primary included a former U.S. attorney, a diplomat, a neuroscientist, and a Baptist preacher, not to mention the usual collection of veteran state legislators. Eight of the 15 hopefuls were women, five were people of color, and one was openly gay. The opportunity to unseat Republican incumbent Cory Gardner in the general election had attracted a large, diverse field. Colorado Dems appeared poised for wide-ranging debates about what issues would guide the party—not only in the June 30 primary and November general election, but also in future years.

That all changed in August when former Governor John Hickenlooper said he would seek the nomination just one week after ending his ill-fated presidential run. The very next day, Hickenlooper announced he’d received the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC)—which included a $49,600 donation (the maximum allowed by law) and a promise that popular senators like Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris would fundraise and campaign for him. “It’s not necessarily unusual for [the national party] to endorse people in high-stakes primaries,” says Robert Preuhs, a professor of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Such an endorsement, though, was a powerful flex that caused many popular moderate candidates, such as former U.S. Attorney John Walsh, to back out. It also represented the second time in two years that the national Democratic Party influenced a major Colorado primary before the race arguably had a chance to get going.

During the run-up to the 2018 Democratic primary for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee designated former Army Ranger Jason Crow its early favorite. Many Colorado progressives decried the party’s efforts to coronate Crow—especially once audio leaked of then House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer telling Levi Tillemann, a former adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy under President Barack Obama, to drop out. “That type of tension is why the national party doesn’t typically get involved in primaries,” says Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop kingmakers in Washington, D.C., from doing the exact same thing before the 2020 Democratic Senate primary—to much the same outrage. Within days of the DSCC’s endorsement of Hickenlooper, six female candidates penned a letter accusing the committee of overlooking qualified women and asking it to rescind the endorsement. Soon after, emails leaked to the Denver Post revealed unrest among state party officials: “It’s getting to the point that people feel, why bother showing up, as decisions have already been made by the higher-ups?” wrote Paula Ozzello, chair of Las Animas County Democrats. Former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff contends U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to browbeat him out of the race and that the DSCC pressured multiple consulting firms not to work with him. However, while its cannonballing into state races might irk local officials, “when the national party weighs in, they tend to prevail—at least in primaries,” Masket says. That’s what happened in the case of Crow, who became the first Democrat ever elected to serve the 6th.

That history of success might explain why the D.C. contingent is stepping into Colorado sooner than it has in past primaries: Crow’s victory helped turn the U.S. House blue, and Democrats will need to unseat Gardner if they have any chance of repeating that feat in the Senate this fall. In other words, they likely believe these contests are too important to be left unattended. “The national Democrats realize that Cory Gardner is not someone to underestimate,” Masket says. “There is a reason he is one of only four Republicans to win a statewide race [in Colorado] in the last decade. Hickenlooper is someone with really high name recognition and consistently high voting margins.”

But because he’s a household name with the full strength of the Democratic machine behind him, Hickenlooper has spent little time campaigning against other Democrats. As a result, Hickenlooper has rarely addressed policies that he doesn’t support but are becoming popular in Colorado, where the Democratic base is turning increasingly progressive (see: Bernie Sanders winning the state’s presidential primary). For example, Romanoff, who won at the state assembly and is on the primary ballot, has made climate change his campaign’s primary focus; scientist Trish Zornio trumpeted the merits of a single-payer health care system; community organizer Lorena Garcia has focused on economic justice. “Some of the other candidates are making really interesting points,”says Ian Silverii, executive director of liberal advocacy group ProgressNow Colorado. “But in the world we live in you need to catch extreme virality or raise a lot of money, because most people are not paying attention.” Which means even if Colorado Dems are trending to the left, the party, thanks to the machinations of its national power brokers, finds itself caught in the middle with Hick.

The Stay Inside Guide to Denver

Newsletters

Keep me up to date on the latest trends and happenings around Denver. 5280 has a newsletter for everyone.

Sign Up