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John Hickenlooper Is Running For Senate. But Did He Miss His Chance?

Chuck Schumer got his man. After months of recruitment from the Senate minority leader, and just days after he dropped out of the Democratic race for president, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declared that he is running for the U.S. Senate.

His decision gives Democrats an obvious heavyweight candidate to take on Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. Hickenlooper owned a well-known craft brewery that was credited with helping to revitalize Denver’s LoDo neighborhood before he served two terms as that city’s mayor. Then he was elected governor in 2010 and reelected in 2014 — both years when the national environment tilted strongly toward Republicans. And two polls now — for whatever they’re worth 14 months in advance — give Hickenlooper identical 13-point leads over Gardner in the general election.

But Hickenlooper’s presidential run may have tarnished his image back home. Although he left office fairly popular (49 percent approved of his job performance in his last three months, while 30 percent disapproved), Morning Consult recently found that 41 percent of Coloradans had a favorable opinion of Hickenlooper and 37 percent had an unfavorable opinion. And Republicans will be able to attack him for the multiple times he said he wasn’t interested in the Senate during his presidential campaign. (Although we did get a preview of how Hickenlooper might parry those attacks in his Senate announcement video: “I’ve always said Washington was a lousy place for a guy like me who wants to get things done. But this is no time to walk away from the table.”)

This raises the question of how much Hickenlooper running actually helps Democrats’ chances. Lately, I’ve been pretty skeptical about the importance of “candidate quality” in this age when the “D” or “R” next to a candidate’s name seems to be all that matters — and about whether we are any good at accurately identifying strong candidates in advance. It’s also worth noting that Colorado Democrats will have plenty of choices of whom to send up against Gardner: About a dozen Democrats were already running for the Senate nomination in Colorado, and so far they don’t look likely to yield to Hickenlooper. Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who led one of the few polls of the primary that didn’t include Hickenlooper, has previously said he would not drop out if Hickenlooper entered the race. And state Sen. Angela Williams released a defiant statement last week warning him to stay out: “If he’s going to switch gears and run for the senate, he has a lot to explain to Colorado voters. This won’t be a coronation.”

Gardner is already one of the most vulnerable senators in the country, a Republican in a Democratic-leaning state1 who will be forced to share a ballot with President Trump in 2020. So while Hickenlooper could very well beat him, I doubt he’s the only one who could do so.


  1. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, or the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that the partisan leans in this article were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.