While people across the country are monitoring the unfolding race for the White House between incumbent Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Democrats are keenly aware that the White House is not the only prize they need to win in November. Unless Democrats win the House of Representatives and the Senate, any Biden presidency will be faced with grinding opposition from the outset – as Barack Obama found out to his cost.
The Democratic Party is way more popular than the Republican Party is in most states across the country, and therefore highly likely to win the United States House of Representatives, but the United States Senate is another matter.
The Senate is, in many ways, the ultimate anti-democratic gerrymander.
Thanks to the fact that each state gets two senators regardless of population, it takes the support a tiny fraction of the population (less than 10%) to elect a majority of the senators. Since the Republican Party is strongest in states with tiny populations – the reddest state in the union, Wyoming, is also the smallest by population – they have a big built-in advantage.
Nevertheless, the 2020 Senate map looks promising for Democrats. The Republicans have to defend almost twice as many seats as the Democrats, and all the seats rated as “toss-ups” are held by Republicans.
One of the most vulnerable Republican senators is Cory Gardner of Colorado.
Gardner won the purple state in an upset victory in 2014 by promising to be “a new kind of Republican.” Six years later, Colorado has moved even further away from the GOP, and Gardner has proved himself to be more like a same-old-same-old Republican. During rallies in February, Trump and Gardner swapped compliments, with Trump claiming that “Cory was with us all the way.”
While this may help Gardner win a future job in the Trump Organization, it will not win him many votes – Coloradans overwhelmingly loathe Trump.
That leading Democrat is former-Governor John Hickenlooper, who spent most of last year fruitlessly pursuing the Democratic nomination for the presidency, only to bow out in August when his quixotic campaign finally ran out of cash.
By the time he dropped out, his staffers were practically begging him to consider a run for the Senate. When he turned his presidential run into a Senate campaign, Hickenlooper led Gardner in the polls by double digits, and his lead has only increased. His odds have been boosted by endorsements from powerful figures and groups within the Democratic Party.
However, many progressives have been hesitant to throw their support behind Hickenlooper. The former Governor might have a “D” next to his name, but he represents the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party.
As Colorado’s governor, Hickenlooper supported the oil and gas industry, fighting against measures to regulate the fracking industry. In 2013, he pressured Democrats to vote against a repeal of the death penalty. In the same year, he opposed a civil rights bill that was designed to tackle workplace discrimination.
During the Democratic primary, Hickenlooper made no efforts to reach out to the progressives – in fact, he used campaign events to compare them to Josef Stalin.
With record like that, it is hard to know whether replacing Cory Gardner with John Hickenlooper in the Senate will be worth the effort; there is no guarantee that Hickenlooper will help to pass sensible progressive legislation, and strong evidence to suggest he will stand in its way, especially if the prominent progressives on the Biden campaign’s recently announced “joint task forces” use their position to influence the policies of a future Biden administration.
Hickenlooper is not the only Democrat in the running for Colorado’s Senate seat, however. He faces stiff competition in the Democratic primary from the former speaker of the state assembly, Andrew Romanoff, who has taken pains to argue that Gardner and Hickenlooper represent virtually the same conservative agenda.
Romanoff has made the Green New Deal the cornerstone of his campaign – a smart move in a state where nearly 80% of voters want Colorado to move to 100% renewable energy – and has garnered admiration and endorsements from activist groups including Our Revolution and the Sunrise Movement.
While John Hickenlooper has considerable advantages over Romanoff (the support of the Democratic establishment, high name-recognition, and a large campaign chest), Romanoff has created a sense of momentum in recent weeks by winning a series of nominating events convincingly to get his name on the primary ballot.
Whoever wins the primary (which is scheduled for June 30), Democrats should not take victory for granted. Although the national environment is a good one for Democrats on paper, COVID-19 has changed the political equation.
The Democrats can no longer rely on enthusiastic young volunteers to bring their message door to door, as happened in the 2018 midterm elections.
At the same time, Republicans find that their superior funding (the product of rampant political-corporate corruption) gives them an advantage in political advertising – advertising that will be seen by more people than ever before, as the Great Lockdown largely confines people to their homes.
This dynamic was evident in last Tuesday’s special elections, where Republicans gained two House seats. They outspent the Democratic candidates in each case.
As well as having more money than his Democratic opponents (he currently has $9.6 million to Hickenlooper and Romanoff’s combined $5.7 million), Cory Gardner has the advantage of being an undeniably skillful politician.
He was described in a profile piece by Politico as “silver-tongued” and “highly disciplined without sounding programmed.” Andrew Romanoff agreed with the assessment: “A lot of Democrats underestimate his skill as a politician…people have said to me ‘Cory is toast,’ but that’s completely wrong.”