Hickenlooper ends White House bid, mulls Senate run in 2020

Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Thursday ended his longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and said he may instead challenge one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans in 2020.

In a video message, Hickenlooper said he had heard from many in his state urging him to enter the Senate race.

“They remind me how much is at stake for our country. And our state,” he said. “I intend to give that some serious thought.”

Colorado’s shift to the left could put Sen. Cory Gardner’s seat in jeopardy for Republicans, and at least 10 Democrats have launched campaigns, setting up a competitive primary even before Hickenlooper, 67, makes a decision.

Hickenlooper became a leading figure in Colorado with his quirky, consensus-driven and unscripted approach to politics. He once jumped out of a plane to promote a ballot measure to increase state spending, and he won two statewide elections during years of Republican waves. He also was Denver’s mayor.

He began his White House campaign in March, promising to unite the country. Instead, he quickly became a political punch line.

Founding a series of brewpubs made Hickenlooper a multimillionaire. But shortly before taking his first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate, he balked on national television at calling himself a capitalist. Then, at a CNN town hall, he recounted how he once took his mother to see a pornographic movie.

With the campaign struggling to raise money, his staff urged Hickenlooper to instead challenge Gardner. But Hickenlooper stayed in and hired another group of aides in a last-ditch effort to turn around his campaign.

He positioned himself as a common-sense candidate who couldn’t be labeled a “socialist” by Republicans. But Hickenlooper couldn’t make his voice heard in the crowded Democratic field of about two dozen candidates.

It didn’t help that, by Hickenlooper’s own admission, he was a mediocre debater and an erratic public speaker. In the end, he could not scrape together enough money for many of his trademark quirky ads, only launching one in which avid beer drinkers toast Hickenlooper by comparing him to favorite brews. He became the second Democrat to end a presidential bid after Rep. Eric Swalwell pulled out of the primary last month.

“While this campaign didn’t have the outcome we were hoping for, every moment has been worthwhile,” Hickenlooper tweeted on Thursday.

Republicans seized on the meltdown of Hickenlooper’s campaign as evidence the Democratic Party has become too radical. “A two-term governor of a swing state and #2020 presidential #Democrat candidate who was booed for warning against his party’s embrace of socialist policies has been forced out of the race,” tweeted Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump aide.

But Hickenlooper’s own supporters attributed his failure partly to the persistence of former Vice President Joe Biden’s strong position in the Democratic primary field. Hickenlooper launched his presidential bid presuming that the 76-year-old Biden would stumble, and the electorate would be hungry for another centrist with a track record of winning white moderates. But Biden remains in the lead in primary polls.

Hickenlooper softened his denials of interest in the Senate in recent weeks as his campaign finances dwindled and pressure increased from other Democrats. He met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had urged Hickenlooper last year to challenge Gardner, shortly after a disappointing performance during the second Democratic debate in July. A former Hickenlooper strategist registered internet domains like “Hick4Senate.com” in the hopes of persuading him to run.

Hickenlooper also recently met with Colorado’s Democratic secretary of state, Jena Griswold, who was mulling a run against Gardner. Griswold last week announced she would not challenge Gardner. That decision led to widespread speculation among Colorado Democrats that Hickenlooper will eventually run. He has plenty of time to make up his mind — the primary is not until June 2020, and the former governor enjoys wide name recognition.

If he entered the Democratic primary, Hickenlooper would be “the absolute favorite,” said Mike Stratton, a veteran Democratic strategist in Denver.

Hickenlooper would also be the oldest candidate in the Senate race, competing against politicians whose recent fundraising hauls have matched or exceeded the $1 million that Hickenlooper raised for his presidential bid in the second quarter of the year.

Some of the Democrats in the Senate primary already began taking shots at Hickenlooper on Thursday.

“He spent his time in Iowa running for president and as governor working and campaigning against bold, progressive solutions that will move Colorado and the country forward,” said state Sen. Angela Williams in a statement. “If he’s going to switch gears and run for the Senate, he has a lot to explain to Colorado voters. This won’t be a coronation.”

Others have said they don’t intend to step aside even if the former governor runs.

“What I heard Gov. Hickenlooper tell everybody who asked is, he wasn’t cut out to be a senator and didn’t want the job,” said former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, one of the primary contenders, in a radio interview.

Hickenlooper got some support from one of his former presidential rivals. “I think it’s always good when anybody who has been a mayor is in the Senate because they have a little more of that background of getting things done,” said Pete Buttigieg during a campaign stop in Iowa. “Certainly, if he chooses to run, he’ll make an outstanding senator.”q