Hickenlooper Could Beat Gardner in 2020 — and So Could Everyone Else

Brandon Marshall

Few things have fired up Colorado Democrats over the past few years more than the thought of unseating Republican Senator Cory Gardner in 2020. His upset victory over Mark Udall in the 2014 midterms still sticks in the craw of Democratic operatives everywhere, and his blankly smiling cardboard face has become a symbol around which a new crop of progressive activists have rallied. Defeating President Donald Trump may ultimately rank as the higher priority for the Democratic base, but replacing Gardner, one of his most valuable allies in the Senate, isn’t far behind.

It’s no surprise, then, that Democrats would want to consider which of the candidates in a crowded primary field stands the best chance of beating Gardner next year. Nor is it surprising that former governor John Hickenlooper — a known quantity with proven fundraising ability and two statewide electoral wins to his name — has been pressed about running for Senate before, during and after his long-shot presidential campaign, which formally came to an end Thursday.

“I’ve heard from so many Coloradans who want me to run for the United States Senate,” Hickenlooper said in a video statement. “I intend to give that some serious thought.”

His announcement came days after a formal “Draft Hickenlooper” campaign had been launched by 314 Action, a D.C.-based political group that recruits people with a background in science to run for public office. In an ad that’s been blasted across Facebook and Twitter all week, the group makes a bold claim: “The only Democrat who stands a chance to unseat Cory Gardner is John Hickenlooper.”

For a group that describes itself as “the pro-science resistance,” on a mission to promote “evidence-based reasoning” in politics and policymaking, that’s an awfully unsubstantiated statement to form a recruitment campaign around. There’s plenty of evidence that it’s flat-out wrong.

With well over a year to go before ballots are cast, there’s been little direct polling on the Colorado Senate race so far — though it’s certainly worth noting that in a poll conducted by DFM Research in January, Gardner trailed an unspecified “Democratic Party candidate” by eight points.

More important, virtually every political tailwind that helped Gardner eke out a narrow win in 2014 is now blowing in the other direction. He was elected in a midterm election, and midterms favor Republicans. He was elected with a Democratic president in office, but next year he'll be running alongside Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in Colorado. He was elected in a strong year for his party, when the so-called generic congressional ballot poll gave the GOP nearly a six-point advantage, but current generic ballot polls show the exact opposite result, favoring Democrats by an average of 6.2 points.

Colorado voter registration data also paints a grim picture of Gardner’s re-election odds. The number of active Republican registrations is down slightly since this time six years ago, while the number of registered Democrats has increased by nearly 80,000. Gardner’s margin of victory in 2014 was less than 40,000 votes.

The increasingly blue hue of the state — and the power of a grassroots, Trump-era backlash against Colorado Republicans — was on full display in 2018, when Democrats swept the GOP out of every statewide office and retook the state Senate for the first time in four years. Representative Mike Coffman, a Gardner-esque Aurora Republican who'd survived everything Democrats had thrown at him for three hard-fought election cycles, suffered an eleven-point defeat. Statewide, Governor Jared Polis won in a similar landslide, beating Walker Stapleton by over 268,000 votes — a margin four times wider than what Hickenlooper managed in his 2014 re-election bid.

There are still other factors working against Gardner, like his strangely low favorability ratings among Colorado Republicans. There's the clear partisan lean of the state's rising share of "unaffiliated" voters, who broke for Democrats in both the primary and general elections last year by a 2 to 1 margin. There's the simple fact that in an increasingly polarized and sorted country, split-ticket voting is becoming far less common; in 2016, no state that voted for Trump elected a Democratic senator, and no state that voted for Hillary Clinton elected a Republican. Clinton won Colorado by a comfortable five-point margin.

Yes, it's early. Yes, Gardner will be a formidable opponent for any Democrat he faces. He'll raise tens of millions of dollars, national right-wing groups will spend tens of millions more on his behalf, and his inevitable pivot toward the center will surely bamboozle plenty of voters (and journalists).

Democrats who want to see Gardner gone shouldn't get complacent, but neither should they psych themselves out and let fear of another Gardner term cloud a very clear picture: All signs point to serious trouble for Colorado's junior senator in 2020, no matter which Democrat he's up against.