When John Hickenlooper ended his presidential campaign last year and decided to run for a U.S. Senate seat instead, some pundits were quick to anoint the popular two-term Colorado governor as the odds-on favorite to unseat Cory Gardner and help Democrats seize control of Congress’ upper chamber.
The problem is, nobody told Andrew Romanoff that’s how the scenario was supposed to play out. Well, actually they did, but he chose not to accept it.
Romanoff, former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, didn’t drop his bid for the Senate seat when Hickenlooper entered the race. Nor did he quit when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Hickenlooper months ahead of this June’s primary elections.
Instead, Romanoff argued that Washington, D.C., insiders shouldn’t determine who Colorado Democrats will nominate to face Gardner in the general election. In at least one interview, Romanoff defiantly referred to the DSCC as the “Democratic Death Star.”
All of this drew little attention at the national or state level. The presidential election has continued to dominate the media coverage, at least until it had to compete with the coronavirus outbreak. Yet Romanoff kept plugging away, making campaign appearances across the state before any groups that were willing to hear from him.
Last weekend, Romanoff’s efforts were rewarded when he outpolled Hickenlooper in the statewide Democratic caucuses. Actually, “outpolled” is putting it mildly. Romanoff skunked Hickenlooper, winning 55 percent of the statewide vote compared to Hickenlooper’s 30 percent. None of the other Democratic candidates participating in the caucuses got more than single-digit support.
Although Hickenlooper won a few counties here and there across the state, he lost big in some of the ones that matter most. In Denver County, where Hickenlooper served as mayor before his stint as governor, he lost to Romanoff by a margin of more than 60 percent to 22 percent.
In famously liberal Boulder County, Romanoff beat Hickenlooper by more than three to one. And here in Pueblo County, Romanoff was the choice of 54.5 percent of caucus attendees, compared to only 33 percent who favored Hickenlooper.
Yet while Romanoff described the caucus wins as surprising and gratifying, he wasn’t ready to pop any champagne corks last week.
“It’s not the whole ballgame,” he said. “We’ve still got to reach more voters and recruit more volunteers.”
In short, Romanoff said he would need to “super size” his campaign to take advantage of his success in the caucuses.
At the very least, Romanoff said the caucus results may force Hickenlooper to get out and do more grassroots campaigning, rather than relying on political ads.
One of Romanoff’s talking points is that, if elected, he would be much more accessible to his constituents than the incumbent. And more than Hickenlooper would be, either.
“Hick has skipped 19 debates so far,” Romanoff said. “If you want a senator who doesn’t show up or answer questions, you’ve already got one.”
Of course, there’s good reason why Romanoff isn’t reading too much into the caucus results. When he ran for Senate in 2010, he won the caucuses but lost the Democratic primary to Michael Bennet.
Romanoff, a strong supporter of initiatives like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, has positioned himself as a more progressive alternative than Hickenlooper. Democratic caucus goers may lean a little bit further to the left than the people who will be voting in the primary.
“We’ll find out,” Romanoff said. “The caucus results show broad support across the state.”
And, as he pointed out, the people participating in caucuses probably have been following the Senate race more closely than the general public. Which might or might not mean anything when ballots are cast in the primary.
At the very least, Romanoff and Hickenlooper gathered enough support through the caucus process to qualify for the primary ballot, without submitting the required number of signatures. Other candidates may qualify through the petition method, but at this point, Romanoff and Hickenlooper seem to be the two strongest candidates in what has been a crowded field.
And just being considered a viable candidate is important for Romanoff, who seemed to have the odds stacked against him.
In the Star Wars movies, Death Stars were fearsome war machines capable of blasting entire planets to smithereens. And yet, as was demonstrated time and time again, they weren’t invincible. Romanoff may have a similar message for doubters who already have Hickenlooper penciled in as Gardner’s opponent this November.
Blake Fontenay is The Pueblo Chieftain’s opinion page editor. To suggest topics for future Prairie Politics columns, please email him at email@example.com.