Former governor John Hickenlooper's announcement that he's running for president has made a big splash in Colorado and a smaller one around the country.
Can a governor from a modestly populated Western state perform a political miracle of the sort that propelled a pair of Southern guvs, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, into the Oval Office during the past half-century? The degree of difficulty is extraordinarily high, and to even have a chance to accomplish this feat, Hickenlooper must overcome a slew of challenges.
Here are some of the biggest.
Hardly Anyone Outside Colorado Knows Who the Hell He Is
Hickenlooper's name is certainly memorable. But thus far, it hasn't stuck in the heads of many non-Coloradans.
As noted by FiveThirtyEight.com, "Hickenlooper’s campaign is basically starting from scratch. In early surveys of the Democratic field — which mostly reflect name recognition at this point — he is polling between 0 and 1 percent. Only 22 percent of Democratic respondents even have an opinion of him, according to an average of national favorability polls since the beginning of the year. And he’s not on the radar of many Democratic activists in early states, either."
One reason Hick remains mostly an unknown quantity outside Colorado is partly because a lot of his big-time press has been of the wonky sort — such as Jennifer Rubin's September 2018 Washington Post opinion piece that described him as "the opposite of Trump" and a glowing portrait the previous month in Governing, a publication that has yet to challenge Buzzfeed for the hearts and minds of the millennial set.
And then there's the problem of mixed messages.
Just last April, Hickenlooper was popping up on cable channels alongside ex-Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican, to float the idea of the pair running for the presidency on a unity ticket that would bring the warring parties together. The concept speaks to Hick's interest in bipartisanship, but it could actually be seen as a negative by those members of the electorate who view any association with the GOP with suspicion at this point.
Like conspiring with the enemy.
The Brand Marketing That Worked in Colorado Will Be a Tougher Sell on a National Level
A popular way of determining a politician's likability is whether the average voter would like to have a beer with him. Obviously, Hickenlooper scores high by this measure: Before getting into politics, the guy owned a friggin' brewpub — the Wynkoop Brewing Company, to be specific.
His accessibility has also been enhanced locally by campaign commercials that have portrayed him as borderline zany, or at least willing to poke fun at himself. Take his first gubernatorial spot in 2010, in which he repeatedly stepped into a shower while in full garb to clean off filth from the campaign.
"No, I'm not standing in a shower with my clothes on because I'm trying to save money on dry cleaning," Hickenlooper said in the commercial. "I just can't stand negative ads. Every time I see one, I feel like I need to take a shower. And you see a lot of them."
This approach worked in Colorado just over eight years ago, when Republican political pro Dick Wadhams dubbed Hickenlooper "the luckiest guy in the world" because his opponent from the Grand Old Party, Dan Maes, was a walking, talking political liability whose support was split thanks to an independent bid from former congressman (and onetime presidential candidate) Tom Tancredo.
Don't expect him to get away with exclusively playing nice this time around. President Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential nod in part by utterly destroying each and every one of his primary contenders — and while Dems may not be quite as vicious, they won't hesitate to get rough if Hickenlooper somehow starts to gain traction.
In such a scenario, his opponents will try everything they can to send him to the showers in another sense of the term.
The Democratic Presidential Field Is Almost as Big as the Duggar Family
We're not quite at the 19 Kids and Counting point for Dems seeking to be commander-in-chief, but close. And if everyone thinking about taking part decides to do so, the total will be even higher than all the kids in TLC's famously overcrowded reality show.
The announced Democratic candidates for president has hit twelve, by CNN's count: Hickenlooper plus New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, ex-Maryland representative John Delaney, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, California Senator Kamala Harris, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Texas author Marianne Williamson and New York businessman Andrew Yang.
Moreover, two other politicos have formed exploratory committees regarding a presidential effort: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. There are also at least thirteen others who are in the considering-it phase, among them former vice president Joe Biden, ex-Texas rep Beto O'Rourke and fellow Coloradan Senator Michael Bennet. And that's not counting onetime West Virginia congressional candidate Richard Ojeda, who announced but has already dropped out.
Of the group that's definitely in the race, Hickenlooper's status as a white male actually places him in the minority and certainly presents an obstacle to be overcome in a party that has made diversity both a selling point and a way of differentiating itself from the male-and-Caucasian-dominated Trump camp.
Beyond that, competitors such as Booker, Harris, Sanders and Warren have much higher profiles than does Hick. It's possible he could emerge from the pack and still land in fifth place. And fifth place in a presidential primary won't even win such a finisher an orange slice.
Moderation May Not Be a Virtue
In his campaign announcement video, seen above, Hickenlooper tries his damnedest to come across as a bold liberal by way of a reference to the passage of "the toughest methane-emission laws in the country," a boast about how "we beat the NRA by enacting universal background checks and banning high-capacity magazines," and a pledge to "produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver."
Whether he'll be able to persuade the electorate to buy this image is another question. Hickenlooper not only ran for governor as a problem-solving centrist, but he served as one in office, with party members to his left regularly suggesting that, among other things, he was too cozy with the oil and gas industry. Remember the time in 2013 that he drank fracking fluid to prove it wasn't as harmful as claimed?
Then there's his stance on recreational marijuana. Legal pot is the kind of issue that might make Hickenlooper attractive to millennial voters, among others. Problem is, he opposed Amendment 64, the 2012 measure that authorized limited retail cannabis sales, and continued to raise doubts about whether the policy was the right way to go for years afterward. Case in point: In a 2014 column by the New York Times writer Maureen Dowd, he said he wouldn't smoke weed "if I was completely by myself in the forest" and groused about becoming the butt of national jokes.
The Times piece also included this moment of irony: When Dowd asked Hick if his unwanted linkage to marijuana would have an impact on his ability to seek higher office, he replied, "Luckily, I don't have serious national aspirations, so that doesn't really become much of an issue."
It is one now, but perhaps not in the way he might have thought about at the time. Hickenlooper's cautious approach to pot is the very kind of thing that's led to pundits branding him among the most moderate candidates for the Democratic nom, along with Amy Klobuchar. Whereas Klobuchar has embraced this mantle, however, Hickenlooper seems ambivalent about doing likewise.
Clearly, he's not going to out-progressive Sanders, Warren or Harris. But neither can he be all things to all people in a Democratic Party whose traditional midpoint is being pushed leftward.
The Money Problem
Cash is a presidential candidate's lifeblood. Without it, aspirants expire no matter how good their ideas — and the end can come swiftly.
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Hickenlooper has only a short period of time to convince donors — either those with fat bank accounts or thousands of individuals with fewer resources — to invest in him. If he doesn't have a sizable amount of dollars in hand by the time debates begin (the first is tentatively slated for June), he could be seen as simply taking up space. Under those circumstances, he may not make it past the Iowa caucuses, which will take place on February 3, 2020.
Donations will be closely tied to poll numbers. He's got to start inching up soon to be seen as someone with decent odds of success. Remaining where he is for the next six months isn't an option.
During a 2018 Westword interview, Tancredo, the last major Colorado politician to put himself through this particular gauntlet, called his run for president "a beau geste. I talked about it. I said, 'I'll never be president. I'm not going to be nominated to be president. I only have one purpose, which is to make the tall guys with good hair on this stage talk about the issue of immigration and border security.'"
In contrast, Hickenlooper seems to genuinely think he can someday take the presidential oath of office. His job between now and November 2020 is to convince everyone else.