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John Hickenlooper’s Presidential Campaign Is Over. Can He Flip A Senate Seat Instead?

Another passenger has boarded the S.S. Winnow: On Thursday, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced he was dropping out of the race for president.

Many of the problems we identified with Hickenlooper’s campaign when he first entered the race ended up coming true. He lacked a geographic or demographic base, and he proved unable to stand out from a flashier field of candidates. Despite hopes that he would make some noise in the debates, he didn’t make a positive impression in the first and spoke less than any other candidate in the second.

The result: Hickenlooper never found his footing among actual voters. When he dropped out of the race, a majority of Democrats (56 percent) still did not have an opinion of him, according to a FiveThirtyEight average of August polls. But even if Hickenlooper had more successfully gotten his name out there, he just wasn’t what voters were looking for. Even in Colorado, where he is well-known and well-liked among Democrats,1 Hickenlooper received just 7 percent of the vote in a Public Policy Polling survey of the presidential primary. Nationally, he never wound up exceeding 2 percent in any poll:

Hickenlooper’s campaign had been struggling for months, so this wasn’t an unexpected announcement. In early July, six of his top staffers left the campaign after urging him to drop out and run for U.S. Senate in Colorado instead. There was so little grassroots appetite for his candidacy that, four months into his campaign, he had reportedly amassed only 13,000 individual donors (one-tenth of the required number to qualify for the September debate). At the time, an anonymous source said staff told Hicklenlooper his campaign was on pace to run out of money by the end of August, so it’s possible Hickenlooper simply could not afford to continue his campaign.

Hickenlooper’s failure is notable because, as a two-term governor of a swing state, he had a great traditional résumé for a presidential candidate; it’s fair to think that if he had run in, say, 1992, he might very well have become the nominee (or at least made more of a showing). But Hickenlooper’s fate is another data point suggesting we can throw some of those old priors out the window. Nowadays, it appears more important to many Democratic primary voters that a presidential candidate either has revolutionary ideas, better represents the diversity of the party or both. And former Vice President Joe Biden, perhaps the only candidate with better traditional credentials than Hickenlooper, is sucking up all the oxygen among the remainder of the electorate.

Indeed, it’s notable that the candidates to qualify for the September debate so far are Biden and then an array of boundary-breaking candidates — three women (Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar), three people of color (Harris, Sen. Cory Booker and Andrew Yang) and a gay man (Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana). Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke are the exceptions, but even they have the novelty of democratic socialism and youth, respectively, on their side. The race’s many straight, moderate and/or older white men look likely to be culled from the debate stage, and we expect some to join Hickenlooper in bowing out of the race. (Of course, we’ll have to wait and see — perhaps some will break out of the pack.)

The other notable thing about Hickenlooper’s departure from presidential politics is the question of what he does next. Many hope he’ll challenge Republican Sen. Cory Gardner back home in Colorado. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has reportedly met with Hickenlooper repeatedly to pressure him into running, and Hickenlooper said in his drop-out video that he will give it “some serious thought.”

But with about a dozen Democrats already running in that race, others believe his presidential dalliance has cost him a clear shot at a Senate nomination that would otherwise have been his for the taking. I agree to a point — it is far from certain that they will all drop out in deference to Hickenlooper. In fact, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff said on Thursday he would not do so. In addition, former state Sen. Mike Johnston has raised more in total contributions for his Senate campaign ($3.4 million) than Hickenlooper did for his presidential campaign ($3.2 million)!2 And both Johnston and former diplomat Dan Baer had more cash on hand than Hickenlooper at the end of last quarter, so those two can also probably afford to stand and fight if they want to.

On the other hand, I still think Hickenlooper would be strongly favored to win the nomination. His fundraising would almost surely pick up (and his rivals’ would dry up) if he sets his sights a little lower. And two hypothetical polls of the race have given Hickenlooper huge leads. The same PPP poll that showed Hickenlooper at 7 percent in the presidential primary put him at 44 percent in the Senate primary, followed by Romanoff at 12 percent. (None of the six other candidates included in the survey received more than 4 percent.) And a more recent poll from Garin-Hart-Yang put Hickenlooper at 61 percent, Johnston at 10 percent and Romanoff at 8 percent. One caveat: Both polls were sponsored by unknown Democratic organizations, and they may have a vested interest in tempting Hickenlooper to run for Senate.

That’s because Hickenlooper is widely seen as Democrats’ strongest possible general-election candidate, and Colorado is virtually a must-win for Democrats if they want to take back control of the Senate. According to the Garin-Hart-Yang poll, 61 percent of Democrats think Hickenlooper has the best chance of defeating Gardner in the general election. (Most respondents said electability was more important than ideology in determining their primary vote — so, ironically, Hickenlooper could end up essentially becoming the Biden of the Colorado Senate field.)

There are reasons to think Hickenlooper would present a particularly strong challenge to Gardner. He’s already won two statewide elections in Colorado — and in tough years for Democrats (2010 and 2014) to boot. And another PPP poll, conducted just last weekend, gave Hickenlooper a strong 13-point lead over Gardner.

But personally, I’m not convinced. Just as early polls of the presidential general election can readily be dismissed, I don’t think that PPP poll shows us much beyond name recognition. Plus, that poll was sponsored by 314 Action, which definitely has a vested interest in tempting Hickenlooper to run for Senate (314 Action is a group that promotes scientists running for office; Hickenlooper is a former geologist).

Additionally, Hickenlooper is on record saying he doesn’t want to be a senator. He has said, “I’m not cut out to be a senator” and “I don’t think that’s my calling.” There is even video of him saying “the Senate doesn’t attract me” and “if the Senate’s so good, how come all those senators are trying to get out?” I would expect to see those clips show up in an attack ad or two.

Finally, in a presidential year, I’m just not sure any Democrat would perform that much better than another. In this era of partisanship über alles, Senate races track very closely with the presidential results in their states. Gardner’s fate probably hinges on how closely associated he is with President Trump, and Trump’s standing come Election Day, more than on the quality of his opponent.


  1. Although his net favorability has slipped a bit since launching his presidential campaign.

  2. As of June 30, the end of the last fundraising period.

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