Hickenlooper defeats Romanoff in Democratic Senate primary

Former Colorado governor to face Republican incumbent Gardner in November

By: and - July 1, 2020 5:30 am

Denver resident Sonja Shearron drops off a ballot June 30, 2020, outside the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building in Denver. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper overcame a series of blunders in the final months of his Democratic primary campaign to best rival Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker, by nearly 20 percentage points, according to unofficial results from the Colorado secretary of state’s office.

As of June 10, Hickenlooper had raised nearly $12 million in contributions, quadrupling the total raised by his Democratic opponent, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Hickenlooper — the candidate favored by establishment Democrats — was forecast to win the primary by a double-digit margin. But many of the vulnerabilities revealed during his campaign could set him up for a tougher fight with incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in November.

“I need him and every one of (Romanoff’s) supporters to bring the same passion and energy they brought to Andrew’s campaign to the fight ahead,” Hickenlooper said in a video posted on Facebook the evening of June 30. “It’s going to take all of us together to beat Cory Gardner and bring about the change this country so desperately needs.”

Andrew Romanoff, left, and John Hickenlooper, right, the Democratic candidates in the June 30, 2020, primary election for U.S. Senate in Colorado. (Romanoff: andrewromanoff.com; Hickenlooper: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Hickenlooper’s entry into the race in August 2019, following a failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, quickly cleared a crowded field of primary hopefuls — with the exception of Romanoff and a handful of less experienced candidates, including community activist Lorena Garcia and research scientist and lecturer Trish Zornio. (Zornio is a Newsline columnist.)

Romanoff sought to position himself as the progressive alternative to Hickenlooper, embracing proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. His campaign was buoyed by support from national progressive organizations like the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate activist group that has backed left-wing challengers in other Democratic primary races across the country.

“It means a lot that you were willing to invest so much of yourselves in our effort, and the causes that we championed will go on,” Romanoff told supporters in a concession speech. “Please do not take tonight’s defeat as a setback.”

But Romanoff also faced an undercurrent of skepticism from some in the party’s progressive wing, who criticized his moderate record in the statehouse, including his support for a highly restrictive immigration bill passed in 2006.

Hickenlooper came under fire when he was cited by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for accepting expensive gifts during his tenure as governor, including a private jet flight and limousine ride.

He made headlines by initially defying the commission’s subpoena June 4, appearing before the commission remotely the following day.

As the former governor’s struggles mounted in the weeks before the primary, Romanoff released a TV ad criticizing Hickenlooper for his ethics violations, insensitive remarks and reports that his administration had paid for government initiatives with private funding from the oil and gas industry. The ad drew stern rebukes from figures across Colorado’s Democratic political establishment, including Gov. Jared Polis and Sen. Michael Bennet.

Hickenlooper, meanwhile, found himself defending against Romanoff’s attacks while attempting to show that his pragmatic approach to politics made him the candidate best suited to beat Gardner in the fall.

That approach seems to have worked for him, at least for now.

A recent Colorado Politics/9News poll conducted by the national firm SurveyUSA showed Hickenlooper leading Gardner with the support of 58% of voters polled, compared with Romanoff’s 28%. An additional 15% were undecided.

That question had a credibility interval of plus or minus 6%, Colorado Politics reported.

The poll surveyed 575 voters likely to cast ballots in the Democratic Senate primary between June 19 and 24 — after Hickenlooper was fined $2,750 by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission on June 12 for accepting inappropriate gifts as governor.

Political action groups and nonprofits poured millions into Senate primary advertisements supporting or opposing various candidates in the final week before the primary, according to reporting from the Colorado Sun.

Hickenlooper also drew several high-profile late endorsements, including from former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, former state House Speaker Terrance Carroll and former U.S. Rep. John Salazar (who flipped from Romanoff’s side).

According to federal election filings, Hickenlooper raised $3.7 million between April 1 and June 10, which his campaign said was the highest total ever raised by a Colorado Senate candidate during the “pre-primary” fundraising period.

Voters turn out in record numbers

The Senate primary showdown could be one reason Colorado voters turned out in higher numbers than in any other non-presidential primary election in the state’s history.

By the morning of election day, June 30, the Colorado secretary of state’s office had already received more than 1.21 million ballots in the non-presidential primary election, according to the Colorado secretary of state’s office. That’s about 34.5% of active, registered voters in Colorado.

As of the morning of July 1, the secretary of state’s office was counting more than 1.57 million ballots — 44.9% of active voters.

That’s “easily” the largest voter turnout in a non-presidential primary election in Colorado, a statement from the office said. (For comparison, a total of 1.16 million voters, or 35.1% of active voters, returned ballots in the June 2018 primary — only the second time in decades that unaffiliated voters were allowed to participate in party primaries.)

And it’s not far off from the 53% turnout of active voters in March for the Super Tuesday presidential primary, before Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus.

Of ballots returned, more than 918,000 were cast in the Democratic primary election and more than 565,000 in the Republican primary, according to a statement from the secretary of state’s office. While the numbers of active registered voters in each party is about even in Colorado, the turnout data suggests that a large chunk of the state’s unaffiliated voters returned Democratic ballots.

Unaffiliated voters were able to weigh in on the Democratic Senate choice to face Gardner, and a variety of down-ballot races, thanks to 2016 ballot initiatives that required both major parties to open their elections to those who weren’t registered as Democrat or Republican. Those people could vote in one of the two primaries Tuesday.

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, several thousand people voted in person at the state’s Voter Service and Polling Centers. All told, votes cast in person made up a relatively tiny portion of the state’s total ballots returned.

‘A lot of enthusiasm’

At a news conference the morning of June 30, Griswold pointed out that only about 10,000 fewer ballots had been returned by that time than by mid-morning of the presidential primary election earlier in the year.

Jena Griswold
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold speaks outside a polling center at Swansea Recreation Center the morning of Colorado’s primary election on June 30, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

“I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm about having our voices heard,” Griswold said — suggesting that national unrest over police brutality against Black Americans, and the massive human and financial losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, could be motivating voters to participate in the democratic process.

She mentioned that a shortage of election judges (who are often retired people who work part-time for county governments to help with elections) has forced some states to close polling stations, but not Colorado.

Still, said Denver County Clerk Paul López, there’s a need for more election judges to help staff voting centers in the fall.

“Serving as an election judge is serving your democracy,” López said, calling on young people to fill the roles normally occupied by seniors who face higher risks from COVID-19.

Romanoff encouraged his supporters to unite behind Hickenlooper as the former governor looks to unseat Gardner in November.

“For all the differences that we had, and there were many throughout this campaign, I am equally committed to making sure that Cory Gardner is a one-term senator,” he said.

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Faith Miller was a reporter with Colorado Newsline covering the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories.