Hickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary

Former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperDemocrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Senate outlook slides for GOP The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue MORE fended off a challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in the Democratic Senate primary in Colorado on Tuesday, overcoming a series of stumbles and gaffes in his bid to take on Republican Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate MORE.

The primary contest ended quickly, with The Associated Press declaring Hickenlooper the winner just half an hour after voting ended. With nearly 70 percent of the vote reported, Hickenlooper led Romanoff 60 percent to 40 percent.

Hickenlooper, who was persuaded to run for Gardner’s Senate seat after an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, was widely considered the favorite to win the primary. But verbal gaffes and a run-in with Colorado’s ethics commission put him on a rockier than expected path to the Senate nomination, giving a new opening to Romanoff. 

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Hickenlooper’s nearly universal name ID in Colorado, relative popularity and fundraising aptitude ultimately helped him overcome his recent stumbles. When Romanoff began airing an ad criticizing Hickenlooper over ethics violations earlier this month, Colorado’s Democratic establishment swiftly condemned the move and urged the former state House speaker to drop the line of attack.

In a lives-treamed address after his victory on Tuesday night, Hickenlooper appealed to Romanoff backers, saying that he needed “everyone of his supporters to bring the same passion and energy they brought to Andrew’s campaign to the fight ahead.”

“It’s going to take all of us together to beat Cory Gardner and bring about the change this country so desperately needs,” Hickenlooper said. I’ve never lost an election in this state and I don’t intend to lose this one. There’s far too much at stake.”

Still, Republicans are set to seize on Hickenlooper’s stumbles. Chief among them is an ethics complaint stemming from his tenure as Colorado governor. The complaint, filed in 2018, accused Hickenlooper of taking a private flight to Connecticut and a limousine ride in Italy in violation of the state’s ban on public officials accepting gifts. 

Hickenlooper was held in contempt by the state ethics commission after he declined to appear at a scheduled hearing. The commission later ruled that the private flight and limousine ride violated the state’s ethics rules and moved to fine the former governor $2,750. 

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Romanoff, who sought to run in the progressive lane of the primary race, hoped to rally the political base that helped Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins Puerto Rico primary In politics, as in baseball, it ain't over till it's over Biden wins Louisiana primary MORE (I-Vt.) win Colorado’s Democratic presidential primary in March. He argued that Hickenlooper would ultimately fail to excite liberal voters and that his ethics violations would weaken him against Gardner.

But Hickenlooper’s primary win on Tuesday suggests that Colorado’s growing bloc of Democratic voters was largely unbothered by the ethics violations. With the win under his belt, Hickenlooper will face off against Gardner in November in a race that both parties see as crucial to deciding control of the Senate.

Democrats need to flip either three or four Republican-held seats, depending on which party wins control of the White House in November, to take control of the chamber, and they see Gardner as one of their top targets. 

Colorado has trended in Democrats’ favor in recent years, culminating in 2018, when the party won control of the state government for the first time since 1936. Democrats have also gained a roughly 80,000-person voter registration advantage over Republicans in the state.

Another factor that may work against Gardner is November is President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE’s presence on the ballot. Trump lost Colorado to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden leads Trump in Florida, tied in Arizona and Texas: poll We haven't seen how low it can go There's a big blue wave coming MORE in 2016 and remains deeply unpopular there. Democrats say that unpopularity is likely to trickle down ballot to Gardner in November.

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“Once Coloradans learn more about Cory Gardner’s 100 percent loyalty to President Trump he’ll be looking for a new job in November,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Democratic leadership.

Republicans went on the attack almost immediately after Hickenlooper’s victory on Tuesday, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) saying that the former governor was “in for a very bumpy ride” through the general election. 

"Over the next few months, voters are going to learn what Hickenlooper has been hiding – about his disregard for the law, his misuse of taxpayer funds and all the illegal gifts and travel from his corporate sugar daddies,” Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the NRSC, said in a statement referencing Hickenlooper’s ethics violations.

Updated at 10:34 p.m.