October 11 has been a big day for endings in Colorado politics. Former Colorado Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and onetime House Majority Leader Alice Madden suspended their respective campaigns for U.S. representative and U.S. senator within an hour of each other.
Duran's February announcement that she would run for the seat of longtime congresswoman and fellow Democrat Diana DeGette came as a shock to the political establishment. Far less surprising was the revelation that she's ending her campaign. "I’ve always known that purpose is more important than one’s title," she stressed in "A New Chapter," a statement about dropping out. "Today I am announcing my decision to withdraw my candidacy from Congressional District 1 because I truly believe I can be more effective in pursuing transformational change through other means."
Madden struck a similar tone when describing why she's stepping away from her bid for the Democratic senatorial nomination and the right to challenge Republican incumbent Cory Gardner.
"The dire need to forge solutions to the climate crisis is the reason I entered the U.S. Senate race against Cory Gardner," Madden allowed. "It is the defining issue of our time, and it’s something to which I have and will continue to dedicate my career. But recent changes in the primary field have made me re-evaluate whether I have a realistic path to victory."
The change to which Madden refers: the entry into the race of former governor John Hickenlooper, whose mere presence had already convinced two other senatorial hopefuls, ex-state senator Mike Johnston and former U.S. ambassador Dan Baer, to hoist the white flag.
Regarding Duran's decision, DeGette was certainly a formidable opponent. She cruised to an easy electoral victory in 2018, collecting more than 70 percent of the vote. She's been in office since 1997, and given the left-leaning demographics of CD1 and her power in the U.S. House (DeGette is the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations affiliate), she seemed to be in a position where she could collect win after win for as long as she wished.
Duran has been seen as a rising star among Colorado Democrats, which made her challenge to the accepted order that much more surprising. "Most Democrats I’ve talked to are either puzzled or furious or some combination of both," columnist Mike Littwin wrote for the Colorado Independent after she joined the race, "which, just spitballing here, is not necessarily the best way to begin a campaign for Congress."
But in conversation with Westword shortly after going public, Duran seemed unaffected by the criticism and portrayed DeGette as too cautious. "This is not a time to be safe, it's not a time to be shy," she told us. "It's a time to be bold. We need a leader in Congressional District 1 who has the political courage to take on the tough issues and move forward with a bold, progressive agenda for all the communities in the district."
DeGette definitely took Duran seriously and made aggressive moves to raise her profile. She was an early advocate for impeaching President Donald Trump, and she scored a public-relations coup when her criticism of flavored vaping dovetailed with a federal ban on electronic cigarettes. She was soon earning face time on CNN and MSNBC — the kind of exposure that undercut Duran's portrayal of her as out of touch.
Attacking an establishment Dem from the left, as Duran was doing, mirrored the strategy that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used in 2018 to take down Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, a ten-time winner in New York's 14th Congressional District. But as independent political analyst Eric Sondermann noted in a post published last month, duplicating this feat brought with it a high degree of difficulty. He saw "three possible outcomes. One, she succeeds and becomes the Colorado AOC. The future is bright for her. The second scenario is that she doesn't succeed, but it's a very credible challenge. DeGette has to sweat and Duran finishes at 45 percent or some number in that vicinity — so she's not a member of Congress, but she's still enhanced her profile, and maybe she's effectively sent the message to DeGette that the clock is ticking and it might be time to consider how long her tenure should last. And the third outcome is that she becomes the 2020 version of Ramona Martinez or some of the other people who've challenged incumbents and gone nowhere. If DeGette has to deal with the challenge but never really has to break a sweat, then I think it could be an existential threat to Duran's political career."
In the end, Duran chose a fourth approach — getting out when it became clear that her candidacy hadn't caught fire, presumably in the hope of preserving her reputation for future political battles. Hence the kind words for backers in her statement. As she put it, "Words cannot begin to express my gratitude to those who had the courage to support the campaign and demand bold and innovative leadership for the people of Congressional District 1." After revealing that she'd be donating the campaign contributions she'd raised to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, she added "sincere thanks to the 110,000 members of the Office and Professional Employees International Union for their early support of our campaign. Your advocacy to address income inequality and ensure hardworking families have access to fair wages, affordable healthcare and retirement security are needed more than ever."
As former associate counsel for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, a union for which her father, Ernie Duran Jr., served as president, Duran understands how important labor is to a liberal pol — and this connection would certainly be an asset in a future election. But it remains to be seen if she'll find herself back in the good graces of the Colorado Democratic Party because she abandoned her quizzical quest now rather than pushing DeGette all the way into 2020.
Jennie Peek-Dunstone, a spokesperson for the DeGette campaign, offered this response to Duran's departure: "Crisanta Duran was a formidable opponent and we wish her luck in her new ventures. The level of support garnered by Congresswoman DeGette shows that she is working on the issues that matter to the people of CD1. She is working to lower the cost of prescription drugs, protect Colorado's environment, get assault weapons off our streets and hold President Trump accountable through the impeachment process. She looks forward to focusing exclusively on this ever more urgent work for the people."
Madden, meanwhile, was widely seen as one of the most credible and impressive Senate candidates, and she appeared ready, willing and able to stick around even after Hickenlooper gave up his long-shot attempt to become the next President of the United States. She was one of six female hopefuls to sign a letter to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee complaining about the organization's practically instantaneous endorsement of Hick.
"All of us, like many women in Colorado and across the country, have seen well-qualified women passed over for male candidates in the workplace time and again," an excerpt from the letter reads. "Those of us who have run for office before have been told to 'wait our turn' and 'don’t rock the boat' more times than we care to mention. Now, the DSCC, by its endorsement, is implying that we should defer to a male candidate because you seem to believe he is 'more electable.' Colorado has never had a woman United States Senator, and one has to wonder if circumstances such as this have contributed to that unfortunate outcome."
Whatever the case, Madden has concluded that staying in the race at this point would be futile — though her exit remarks don't smack of defeat.
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"I will do my best to ensure we keep the need for decisive action at the forefront of this Senate contest and beyond," she emphasized. "I was proud to march with the thousands of Coloradans at the climate strike, and today [October 11] we see thousands more gather to see Greta Thunberg — people of all ages, incomes, and backgrounds — demanding transformative change."
She added: "As disappointing it is to leave this race, they give me hope. The clarion call to our elected officials is loud and clear. Together, we can lead this country to a carbon net-negative future, including an inclusive clean energy economy that helps expand our middle class. I have enjoyed spending time with the other candidates in the primary field and I am proud to have helped raise the profile of many important issues. Medicare for all. Education. Gun control. Campaign finance reform. Human dignity. Reproductive freedom. And I will always be an ally for the working people of Colorado, and am so pleased to have the first (and only) union endorsement of this race, from the Lafayette Professional Firefighters. And to my many supporters across the state, I cannot thank them enough for putting their faith in me.
"The importance of this Colorado Senate race must not be underestimated. It is about the path we choose as a state and a nation," she continued. "I intend to keep an open dialogue with all the candidates to ensure protecting the Rocky Mountain West and building a sustainable future for all remaining mainstays of this race. It is our moral imperative."
This post has been updated to include a comment from the Diana DeGette campaign.