Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down

Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down
© Greg Nash

Colorado Democrats vying for the right to face vulnerable Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play Republicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Colo.) next year are sending a clear message to former Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment enters new crucial phase Bullock drops White House bid, won't run for Senate 2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections MORE (D): They have no intention of getting out of his way, even if he jumps in the race.

Hickenlooper, who on Thursday ended his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been courted by his own staff and national Democrats, who think he has the best shot at beating Gardner. He said in a video announcing his withdrawal on Thursday that he would consider jumping into the Senate race.

Several outside groups have publicly pressured Hickenlooper to join the race, some by releasing polling data showing him dominating the primary and leading Gardner.

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A national Democratic group sent a survey conducted by the firm Garin-Hart-Yang to the Denver Post that showed Hickenlooper leading the Democratic primary with 61 percent of the vote, while his would-be rivals struggled to break double digits. A second group, the 314 Action Fund, released a Public Policy Polling survey that showed Hickenlooper leading Gardner by a 51 percent to 38 percent margin.

But many of the 15 candidates who have already entered the race against Gardner — among the most vulnerable Republican senators seeking reelection in 2020 — have signaled in recent days they intend to continue their campaigns. Some even previewed the attack lines they would likely use against him if he does join the race.

"I'm sorry Gov. Hickenlooper’s presidential race didn’t work out. But 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," state Sen. Angela Williams (D) said 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."

Williams, who joined the race in July, is one of several candidates who has met with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSenate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave Krystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment? MORE (D-N.Y.) about the race. Because she entered the race late, she has not reported how much money she has raised.

But other candidates have. Mike Johnston, a former state senator who entered the race in January, had raised almost $3.4 million through the end of June, according to Federal Election Commission records — more than Hickenlooper raised for his presidential campaign through the same date.

"I respect the Governor’s decision to leave the presidential race. He has led a distinguished career of service that has changed Colorado for the better, and as both his friend and as someone who has faced the same decision, I understand the enormous choice he’ll make in the coming weeks about whether or not to join the Senate race," Johnston said in a statement.

Former U.S. Ambassador Dan Baer, who served in President Obama's State Department, has raised $1.3 million. Andrew Romanoff, a former state House Speaker who has a following among progressive activists, had pulled in north of $1 million by the end of June.

A spokesperson for Romanoff's campaign said he would not drop out if Hickenlooper entered the race.

Hickenlooper's entry into the race would be a particular challenge for both Johnston and Baer, close political allies of the former governor. Hickenlooper told Johnston months ago he would stay out of the race, one source familiar with the conversation told The Hill, and Baer is a former member of Hickenlooper's cabinet.

Making matters more complicated is Colorado's unique primary system. Candidates can compete to win the state Democratic Party's convention, which guarantees them a place on the ballot, or they can bypass the convention and collect signatures to get on the ballot if they don't believe they can win a majority among Democratic activists.

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Hickenlooper, starting from fundraising scratch if and when he decides to join the race, will also confront the prospect of a spirited challenge from a fresh face at next year's convention. Deciding to bypass the convention could also be seen as an unwillingness to take the political risk.

The winner of next year's June 30 primary will run into Gardner's well-funded buzz saw. Already, the first-term Republican has $4.9 million in the bank, one of the higher tallies among Republicans seeking reelection next year.

Gardner won his seat in 2014, when he ousted Sen. Mark UdallMark Emery UdallDemocrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE (D) by about 2 percentage points. He is seen as a particularly vulnerable incumbent, in part, because Colorado has become an increasingly blue state in presidential years. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll Clinton tweets impeachment website, encourages voters to 'see the evidence for themselves' MORE won Colorado's electoral votes in 2016.

That year, for the first time since the direct election of senators began, every Senate contest went to the same party that won that state's electoral votes.