"You're the ones who started the rumor," says former state senator and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston about a Westword post from last August headlined "Mike Johnston Considering Run Against Cory Gardner in 2020."
It's more than a rumor now. Johnston, who finished third to Governor Jared Polis in last year's Democratic primary, has officially announced his bid to unseat Gardner. And while he's not the first Dem to declare (he was preceded by Denver's Lorena Garcia, Grand Junction's Keith Pottratz and Superior's Trish Zornio), he's unquestionably the highest-profile hopeful to date — which explains why the National Republican Senatorial Committee took a shot at him almost immediately after news of his candidacy broke.
The NRSC tweeted: "Another b-teamer throws their hat in the ring for what is sure to be a divisive Democrat primary. The nice thing about running until you win something is you can recycle your old campaign material."
For his part, Johnston seems to see such invective as proof that he's the Democrat to beat in the race against Gardner, whom many pundits see as among the most vulnerable Senate Republicans in 2020.
"People told me when I thought about doing this that the entire Republican apparatus would come out swinging, and they were right," he says. "It's a strange form of flattery. They're clearly scared because they know we have the best chance to beat Cory Gardner. They've built an entire book on me, because they're afraid we're going to take his seat and take the gavel from Mitch McConnell."
This last reference is hardly a casual aside. Defeating Gardner "could tip the balance in the Senate," Johnston maintains. "That's why this is the most important Senate race in the country."
Granted, there's no guarantee that sending Gardner to the political showers, Walker Stapleton-style, would reduce Kentucky's McConnell to minority-leader status, since Democrats must clear plenty of structural hurdles in order to retake the U.S. Senate. While Republicans are expected to defend 22 seats to the Dems' twelve in 2020, the GOP senators mostly come from ultra-red states that won't be easy to flip.
But Gardner is a big exception, given the blue wave that swept Colorado last November. That's one reason that his efforts to distance himself from President Trump — which have been undermined by his own record, not to mention his recent endorsement of The Donald's own 2020 reelection campaign — have both been topics that Johnston's tackled on Twitter.
Johnston's eagerness to challenge Gardner has been so pronounced that some insiders have suggested he ran for governor only to increase his name recognition for a 2020 senatorial run.
This suggestion earns a laugh from Johnston, who calls it "completely off-base. I would probably not still be married if that was the plan. I was not at all convinced six months ago that this was something I wanted to do. It took a lot of time looking at other ways I could make an impact — and I kept coming back to the idea that Coloradans need someone to actually make government work and literally help save the planet by taking a courageous lead on climate change instead of following countries like Russia and China. And they need someone who can help solve the immigration system to make it work in a humane way and fix health care for people in rural areas and all over Colorado."
He mentions firearms-related issues, too, but less frequently than he did when his goal was the governor's office and he became a major beneficiary of donations from political action committees backed by ex-New York City mayor and gun-laws reformer Michael Bloomberg. His most common references, though, involve equating his opponent to a certain resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Look at all the things Trump has done, and Cory Gardner has still hooked himself to him," Johnston maintains. "Gardner and Trump run away from the largest problems. But what I find Coloradans want is someone who is going to run at the toughest problems, and someone who has the leadership to pass progressive policies to get things done. They want someone who has the courage to stand up for Colorado at moments that matter. And I think Cory Gardner's endorsement shows that he's not going to stand up for Colorado. He's going to stand up for Trump."
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No one thinks Johnston is the last Democrat to target Gardner. Indeed, plenty of folks expect the current quartet to be joined eventually by former governor John Hickenlooper if and when he gives up on his presidential aspirations. But Johnston downplays the prospect of Hick joining the fray. "John is a good friend, and I'm a big fan of his," he says. "But if you watch the same news clips I have, you've probably wondered if he's wanting to open another Wynkoop Brewing Company in Iowa." More seriously, he suggests that "a lot of things are calling him to the national stage. I think he's got bigger plans in store."
Johnston is signing up for another major campaign only about six months after concluding one that lasted a year and a half; it ran from January 2017 until last June. He says he received his family's blessings before embarking on his latest electoral adventure — and promised his three kids that he would be sure to carve out plenty of quality time for them. For instance, he's still coaching their flag-football team.
But he's also ready to take part in a certain full-contact sport — one that he sees as requiring unity to earn victory.
"I'm certainly hopeful a lot of Democrats are really focused on bringing the party together to make sure we beat Cory Gardner," he says. "I look back on the governor's race with great humility, because I see what an incredibly strong field we had. But this time, I think there's a lot of interest from folks who want to rally behind one candidate and one campaign and make sure we win. And I want to make the case that we are that campaign."