Now that John Hickenlooper has officially joined the presidential race, he has, let us say, just a few challenges to overcome.
1. Money. It should be noted that several candidates are now rolling in cash, most notably Bernie Sanders who raised $6 million on his first day after officially entering the race. Much of the money – and all of Sanders’ – comes directly from grassroots supporters. Kamala Harris raised $1.5 million in 24 hours, Amy Klobuchar $1 million in 48. But more telling for Hickenlooper is that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was running for president last Friday and, by Monday, said he had raised $1 million. And now Hick has announced he pulled in just over a million in the first 48 hours, which seems to put him in the game.
2. Name recognition. Outside Colorado, Hick doesn’t have any. In the few national polls in which he has been included, he doesn’t hit 1 percent in what is already a crowded and top-heavy field. Inslee, another western governor who lacks name recognition, is about to get a $1 million TV ad buy in Iowa from a supporting Super PAC (which many Democrats don’t find so super). In such a crowded field, it will be difficult for Hickenlooper to get much in the way of free media, having to compete with Sanders, Harris, Warren, Booker, Klobuchar, maybe Beto, maybe Biden, just for starters. On the other hand, Hickenlooper, who survived two terms as a very popular governor, has shown real talent in getting attention. The Onion is not so sure. Its headline reads: “Hickenlooper Announces Support for Nuking Australia Just To See If Anyone Paying Attention.”
3. Fracking/environmentalists. Hickenlooper has been touting his efforts to bring oil and gas together with environmentalists in Colorado. Candidates are forgiven for stretching their credentials, but we’ll just remember that O&G spend $20 million on two fracking measures. Both lost. Hickenlooper, the self-proclaimed failed one-time geologist, may have drunk the fracking fluid, but the argument in Colorado is nowhere near being settled.
4. Guns. Hick is bragging about the gun legislation passed in Colorado in 2013, which he signed and which nearly cost him cost him re-election the next year. But a little digging tells a more nuanced story. In what may be the worst moment of Hickenlooper’s tenure, he once told CNN that guns weren’t the issue in the Aurora theater shooting. “This person, if there were no assault weapons available, if there were no this or no that, this guy’s going to find something, right?” he told Candy Crowley.
Given new evidence, he came around to his most controversial move, backing a bill that would limit the size of high-capacity magazines. Two state senators would be successfully recalled for their votes. Another would resign. It was quite brave for the cautious Hickenlooper to stand up against the NRA, yet he wasn’t exactly bragging about the gun bills back in the day. In fact, after they had passed, he told a group of rural Colorado sheriffs – in a meeting that was secretly recorded – he had been surprised by the anger the bills caused.
“A lot of people, if they’d known how much commotion was going to come out of the high-capacity magazines, probably would have looked for something different or a different approach,” Hickenlooper said. He added: “To be honest, no one in our office thought it would get through the legislature.”
5. Health care. Hickenlooper objects to being called a “moderate” or “middle of the road,” even though he’s made a career of being as nonpartisan as possible. I’d say he’s moderately liberal, probably to the right of much of the field. But, for Hick and any other candidate, it’s as much about attitude as it is about policy. Hick is not angry. That’s a good thing in Colorado. It may not be a good thing in a national Democratic primary. One issue that does matter is health care. Everyone in the Dem field is for universal health care. The arguments about how to get there – Medicare for all, single payer, expanded Medicaid, adding a public option to Obamacare, etc. – will likely dominate the primary. Hickenlooper is against Medicare for all. That probably settles the “moderate” question.
6. How Hick could win. In an interview with Joe St. George on Fox31, Hickenlooper said he hopes to win in Iowa and finish in the top two in New Hampshire. In such a large field, that may be impossible. But when St. George asked him if the race would be over for him if he doesn’t finish near the top in those states, Hick responded: “If I’m not near the top – yeah – I think it would be very difficult for someone like me if I can’t perform in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Hick has much going for him. He’s a good politician. He knows how to be quirky without looking foolish, although his tendency to gaffe is another matter. He has made as many, if not more, memorable campaign ads than anyone in the field. Colorado has done well under his watch. Some of that is luck. He came into the job with the economy in terrible shape and which had to improve. Some of it is not luck. He came into the job with the economy in terrible shape and Colorado is now arguably the hottest state in the country. In a huge field, with no real favorite, someone will probably come from the back of the pack to challenge.
7. Why Hickenlooper (probably) can’t win. I once wrote that Hickenlooper’s base is moderate Republican columnists who like Hick’s kind of Democrat. The Washington Post’s Jen Rubin, an anti-Trumpist conservative, once wrote that Hick is the opposite of Trump – the best compliment she could have paid him. But Paul Waldman, writing more from the left in the Post, says moderates like Hickenlooper misread the Republican Party. The idea of comity, he says, is basically a pipe dream. Can the idea that he can bring people and parties together work in Washington, where the parties are basically at war?
Waldman points to an interview Hickenlooper did with ABC News in which George Stephanopoulos asks him how he’d deal with Mitch McConnell, and, in reply, Hickenlooper cites agreements he forged with suburban mayors.
“When I come into office,” Hickenlooper said, “I would go to Mitch McConnell to his office and I would sit down with him and say, ‘Now what is the issue again?’ And we would talk and I would continue to speak back to him – it sounds silly, right? But this works, this is what I did with the suburban mayors, and they hated the city of Denver. You go to any metropolitan area in the country, the arguments between the big-city mayor and the suburban mayors, they’re almost endless. We’re the one place where this has gotten done, and I think it’ll work in Washington.”
The best thing you can say about this statement is that it’s naive. Washington is obviously broken. Can Hick fix that?
Obama couldn’t. He ran on bringing the nation together. McConnell responded by saying he would do everything he could to make Obama a one-term president. McConnell didn’t succeed on the one-term, but he blocked Obama wherever he could. You think Hick could have gotten Merrick Garland past him to the Supreme Court?
That’s the argument Hickenlooper will try to make.
Mike Littwin is a columnist for The Colorado Independent.