DENVER — Democrats are struggling to nail down A-list recruits in Senate races across the country. But here in Colorado, they have the opposite problem: A field of candidates so big that the primary is turning into a total free-for-all.
In a spectacle that resembles Wal-Mart on Black Friday — or, for that matter, the Democratic presidential primary — nearly a dozen candidates are stampeding to take on Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), probably the most vulnerable Republican incumbent on the ballot next year. Other Democrats are weighing jumping in. And there’s neither a clear front-runner nor consensus among party leaders on the best standard-bearer in the must-win race.
The swarm of candidates filled a void left by just-departed Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was courted to run for the seat but decided to jump into the even more crowded race for president instead.
National Democrats tried in the past to anoint chosen candidates in key Senate contests to avoid precisely this situation. But that tactic backfired in recent years, when well-known former elected officials blew winnable races in battleground states. So in Colorado, Democrats are opting for a hands-off approach, allowing the primary to play out and hoping someone emerges from a crop of young, mostly untested candidates who is capable of knocking out a skilled GOP incumbent.
They’re confident that Gardner is beatable no matter who wins or how bloody the primary is.
“Because Gardner’s so vulnerable and is so bad for the state, we are bursting at the seams,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll. “The party is strictly neutral, but we have a big field of folks that are champing at the bit to make sure he’s replaced.”
Republicans plan to take full advantage of the packed primary. They’re trying to push candidates to the left and to tie the contenders to the presidential candidates and the administration of Gov. Jared Polis in the hopes of damaging them with unaffiliated and moderate voters.
“It shows that they don’t think they have a winner in the field,” Gardner said of the crowd running against him. “It’s going to grow. There’s going to be more of them."
Of the dozen Democrats in the running, at least half are serious contenders for the nomination.
Mike Johnston, a former state senator, was the first to enter the race and is considered the early favorite. His bullet hole-pocked campaign office doubles as a community center in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence.
Another early candidate was Andrew Romanoff, the former state house speaker who challenged Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) from the left and blew a winnable race against Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) in 2014. But Romanoff is popular among liberals and Republicans are paying close attention to him.
Then there’s a trio of former Obama administration officials whose profiles mirror those of successful House candidates in 2018. Dan Baer, a former State Department official and ambassador in Europe, would be the first openly gay man to serve in the Senate if elected, and touts his foreign policy experience as a sharp contrast with Gardner. John Walsh, a former U.S. attorney running as a “pragmatic progressive,” is endorsed by a handful of former Obama officials, including former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Alice Madden, a former state house leader and Department of Energy official, was the first top-tier woman to enter the race. Colorado has never elected a woman to the Senate, which Madden says gives her an edge in a field of mostly white men.
But at least three other women are considering running: secretary of state Jena Griswold and state Sen. Angela Williams both recently met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and state Sen. Kerry Donovan is considering a bid.
Johnston’s $1.8 million fundraising haul in the first quarter of the year nearly matched Gardner’s total. The next round of fundraising in July could further define the pack. But Washington and Colorado Democrats have no interest in picking sides.
“Our obsession over big-name Senate recruits has not proved to be a worthwhile strategy,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn). “Finding new faces who are willing to work hard and capture the imagination of voters is sometimes better than putting someone on the ballot that has big-name recognition."
Gardner won by fewer than 2 points in 2014, and Hillary Clinton carried the state by 5 points in 2016. Last year, Democrats easily swept statewide races as they reversed a deficit of 50,000 registered voters in 2014 to an advantage of 50,000 registered voters.
Still, the primary isn’t until late June 2020, and candidates can’t begin collecting signatures to make the ballot until January. People running now could drop out, others could enter or a clear frontrunner could emerge.
Democrats avoided Senate primaries this year when Reps. Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Joaquin Castro of Texas declined to run, clearing a path for Mark Kelly and MJ Hegar, respectively. Contested races would have been a major problem for Democrats in those red-leaning states, but in Colorado they’re confident any nominee can be competitive.
Hickenlooper is another X factor. His presidential campaign is sputtering and he could change his mind and run for Senate instead. The popular two-term governor would likely quickly overtake the primary.
That decision is "totally up to him," said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is running for president himself and once chaired the DSCC.
But “I’m not worried about the big field” in Colorado, Bennet added. “I think it will shake itself out."
The vast field will offer voters an array of potential avenues to unseat Gardner. Not unlike the presidential primary, the overriding consideration may be electability over ideology.
“Coloradans are going to get very serious about who is the candidate that’s going to be actually best positioned to beat Cory Gardner in what’s one of the most important Senate races in the country,” Johnston said.
Johnston has statewide name ID after having run unsuccessfully for governor last year. Baer, meanwhile, touts his international acumen, saying to he has the ability "toe to toe" with Gardner, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Madden is leaning on her climate change credentials and voters who are "very hungry" to elect the state’s first female. And Walsh argues his work as a U.S. attorney fighting opioids will help harness the "fierce energy" among voters.
Click Here: liverpool mens jersey
Progressive activists in the state aren’t taking sides yet and shrugged off the prospect of a drawn-out and expensive primary leaving the nominee weak and broke heading into the fall against Gardner.
“When you’re the No. 1 state in the country [in the battle for Senate control], I don’t think there’s such a thing as limited resources,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado. “When it’s over we’re going to cream him.”
Everett reported from Denver. Arkin reported from Washington.