Republicans have been pretty happy about the recruiting failures Democrats have suffered in Senate races this year. Beto O’Rourke, who lost the 2018 Texas Senate race to Ted Cruz by just 2.6 points, decided to run for president instead of taking on incumbent Republican senator John Cornyn in 2020. Stacey Abrams, who lost the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election by 1.4 points, decided against a 2020 bid against incumbent Republican senator David Perdue. Montana’s popular Democratic governor. Steve Bullock, has chosen a longshot 2020 presidential campaign instead of running for Senate.
But Democrats may have caught a break when former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper dropped his own longshot presidential campaign. He is now seriously considering running against incumbent freshman GOP senator Cory Gardner in 2020.
“I’ve heard from so many Coloradans who want me to run for the United States Senate,” Hickenlooper said in a YouTube video announcing the end of his presidential campaign. “They remind me how much is at stake for our country — and our state. I intend to give that some serious thought.”
“This is not the race that Cory Gardner wants, that’s for sure,” Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report tells National Review. Hickenlooper, a former geologist and brewpub owner, served as mayor of Denver before being elected governor during the 2010 GOP wave and reelected during another Republican wave in 2014. He developed a reputation as a pragmatist and remains popular in the state: Democratic polling shows Hickenlooper easily winning a Democratic primary and leading Gardner 51 percent to 38 percent in the general election. But Duffy says that if Hickenlooper enters the race, she’ll continue to rate it a toss-up. “If we moved it in the Democrats’ direction, it would not be any time soon,” she says. There are plenty of recent examples of popular former governors flopping as Senate candidates: Evan Bayh in Indiana, Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, and Ted Strickland in Ohio.
Of course, Colorado has been turning blue, while Indiana, Tennessee, and Ohio are all trending red. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in Colorado by five points in 2016, and the state has one of the highest proportions of college graduates of any state in the country. College-educated voters are increasingly favoring Democrats. With fewer voters splitting tickets these days, is there any reason to think Cory Gardner could survive in 2020 if Trump lost the state by five points again?
Gardner’s plan to win over a critical number of anti-Trump voters in 2020 will focus on his record as a bipartisan senator who has delivered for his state, Republican strategists in Colorado tell National Review. For example, the Bureau of Land Management announced in July that it was moving its headquarters to Grand Junction.
Gardner “had a lot to do with that,” says Duffy, who adds that Colorado politics tends to break down between “Denver and everyplace else,” and “that helps Gardner in some ways because he’s part of everyplace else.”
Republican strategists contend that Hickenlooper’s popularity is exaggerated, and that he’s never faced a strong opponent. He won in 2010 by 15 points because anti-immigration candidate Tom Tancredo ran on the Constitution-party line and split the anti-Democratic vote: Hickenlooper beat Tancredo 51 percent to 36 percent, with the Republican candidate taking 11 percent. Hickenlooper won reelection in 2014 by three points over a Republican challenger who wasn’t particularly particularly strong, while Cory Gardner defeated an incumbent Democrat that same day by two points. Hickenlooper’s performances in the first two Democratic debates were lackluster, while Gardner turned in impressive debate performances during his first run for Senate. And Hickenlooper’s brief presidential run also provided his opponents with some fodder like this quote from February 2019: “I’m not cut out to be a senator.”
Still, a lot is going to depend on what happens at the top of the ticket in Colorado. Although Senate GOP candidates ran ahead of Trump in most states in 2016, Duffy notes that there wasn’t a single Senate race where the Republican candidate won a state carried by Clinton (or where the Democratic candidate won a state carried by Trump). And running ahead of Trump will be harder in 2020 than it was in 2016, when congressional Republicans and Trump weren’t yet joined at the hip. Gardner has always had a tough race ahead of him in 2020. A Hickenlooper candidacy would only make it tougher.