DENVER – Former Gov. John Hickenlooper was supposed to be Democrats' worry-free solution to the Colorado Senate race, but he's stumbled badly in the weeks leading up to the party's June 30 primary.
Hickenlooper defied a subpoena from the Colorado Ethics Commission, only testifying after the nonpartisan panel found him in contempt. Then the commission found he'd violated state ethics laws by accepting free travel while governor.
Meanwhile, as protests raged over police violence against black people, Hickenlooper garbled his explanation of the key activist phrase “Black Lives Matter” and had to apologize for a 6-year-old quip in which he compared politicians to slaves “on an ancient slave ship” being whipped to row faster.
The 68-year-old brewpub magnate-turned-politician has never been a smooth campaigner. His nonpartisan leanings, unscripted style and corny jokes are part of what endeared him to Colorado voters, helped him win two races during strong Republican years and convinced national Democrats he was their best shot at picking up a critical Senate seat that could help them take the majority.
But if Hickenlooper emerges from the primary victorious but battered, his stumbles could give a lifeline to the man he'd face in November: Cory Gardner, widely considered the nation's most vulnerable Republican senator. Hickenlooper's troubles this year reflect how the state has moved to the left since his last election in 2014.
“It's an indication of how much Denver and the whole state has changed,” Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan analyst, said of Hickenlooper's woes. “We're no longer a swing state. We've become a more liberal state and the Democrats a more liberal party.”
Hickenlooper's rival, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, is another longtime Colorado Democrat who came of age politically when members of that party had to convince the state's pragmatic-minded voters they weren't radicals.
Romanoff lost his last two races — in 2010, he sold his house to finance an underdog primary challenge to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, and in 2014, he unsuccessfully challenged a Republican congressman in a swing district. Now Romanoff is campaigning on the Green New Deal and single-payer health care, hoping to beat Hickenlooper from the left in a state that Bernie Sanders won on Super Tuesday.