Scramble for the Senate: Colorado
Scramble for the Senate: Colorado

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.

Recent polls of Colorado’s U.S. Sen­ate race show Gardner’s weak­ness in stark fash­ion; he is trail­ing the lead­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­tender by around 17% (although these polls may be out­liers).

John Hickenlooper speaks to Iowans during his presidential campaign
John Hick­en­loop­er speaks to Iowans dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.”

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One reply on “Scramble for the Senate: Can Democrats show Colorado’s Cory Gardner the door?”

  1. As Clin­ton and Oba­ma have painful­ly found out, the par­ty in the White House his­tor­i­cal­ly has lost big in midterm elec­tions. I real­ize this is not a midterm, but it adds urgency to the agen­da if we cap­ture the White House and the Sen­ate in 2020.

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