Colorado Senate hopeful Romanoff says Hickenlooper: 'out of step with the moment'

Long-shot progressive candidate has a moment amid his opponent's ethics scandal.

June 19, 2020, 1:58 PM

The race to face off against incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado’s senatorial primary is coming to a close, but not without controversy.

Former Colorado governor and presidential candidate John Hickenlooper, seen as the frontrunner in the race, received a nearly $3,000 fine last Friday from the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for ethics violations he incurred during his time as governor, including allowing companies to cover the cost of a private jet, ground transportation and expensive dinners, according to the Denver Post.

He also faced criticism from his opponent, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, after a campaign surrogate of Romanoff's tweeted a video of Hickenlooper at a 2014 dinner, where he compared the workload of a governor to being a rower on 'an ancient slave ship.' Hickenlooper apologized for the comments on Monday night, saying he did not intend for them to cause pain, according to Colorado Public Radio.

Additionally, in a racial justice forum in late May, Hickenlooper said "that every life matters."

He later released a statement clarifying his comments, but Romanoff has seized on the opportunity to draw on what he sees as his opponent's weaknesses, while Hickenlooper's campaign maintains he is the candidate most fit to win in November and have success in the Senate.

"It's not a matter of moderate versus progressive or anything like that, it's a matter of who can get things done for Colorado," Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for Hickenlooper's campaign, said in an interview. "John expanded health care in Colorado, and implemented first-in-the-nation 'gold standard' methane regulations. He has a proven track record of bringing people from both sides together to get things done, and it's exactly what's missing in Washington. And it's where Cory Gardner has failed the most."

Hickenlooper far outpaces Romanoff when it comes to fundraising. According to FEC reports filed at the end of March, Hickenlooper raised nearly $9 million, with almost $5 million cash on hand. Romanoff raised just over $2 million with just over $800,000 cash on hand.

PHOTO: Sen. Cory Gardner speaks to reporters following the weekly Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 9, 2020.
Sen. Cory Gardner speaks to reporters following the weekly Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 9, 2020.
Susan Walsh/AP

“I can't wait to run against Cory Gardner,” Hickenlooper said during Tuesday’s third and final primary debate.“I ran statewide in 2010 and 2014, very difficult years for Democrats, and I won statewide each time. Andrew, you haven't won yet statewide. In the state of Colorado, I haven't lost yet, and Andrew hasn't won an election in 14 years."

Strategists say, though, Hickenlooper's controversies have undoubtedly changed the dynamic of the race.

"You'd have to be living under a rock to think that the recent events haven't changed the dynamics of the race, because they have," Ted Trimpa, a Democratic political strategist based in Colorado, told ABC. "So I think the race is going to be closer than people think. I still think that John will pull it out."

Romanoff, who is running on a more progressive platform than Hickenlooper's, has used the former governor's gaffes -- which have recently centered around comments on race -- to draw comparisons between him and his opponent. Romanoff has been quick to point out that the three finalists for taking Colorado's Senate seat are white men, despite the vast field of candidates of color which the primary began with.

Portia Prescott, a Democratic strategist based in Colorado, said diversity within the party filters from the top down and that she feels that tilts the odds in favor of a white male candidate.

'So, this is starting from the top down, the top of the party down. There's nowhere else to start. That's caused a lot of dissension," she said. "I think we're gonna struggle, personally. I have no clue what's going to happen June 30. If you have Hickenlooper then you're going to have a disgruntled Colorado."

"And there's a lot of open doors and a lot of gaffes that Hickenlooper has made. He has a bunch of open wounds that Gardner can just pick at the minute it's decided," she said. "And he's going to have to slowly reintroduce himself to the African-American community, and prove why we should go vote for him, and why we should turn out the vote."

Trimpa said the party needs to begin reflecting the base, which is diverse.

'I think it's a statement about our politics in general. And I've always felt like the party, and many of us who have been operating in the party for decades, haven't fully appreciated the breadth of what the party represents, and have kind of let ways of doing things go on for too long. And in many ways, have taken people of color for granted," Trimpa said. "We need to be cultivating a platform of people that reflect that the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party is not just a bunch of white guys."

In an interview with ABC News, Romanoff, who ran an unsuccessful race for Congress in 2014, highlighted what he sees as flaws with Hickenlooper’s candidacy, including his ethics violations and previous comments ranging from race, to his desire to run for Senate.

“There's the video from six years ago where he's comparing the life of a politician to a slave on the ship, there's his misunderstanding of Black Lives Matter,” Romanoff told ABC on Wednesday. And then, I think, more troubling for voters. He broke the state ethics law, he defied a subpoena, he got held in contempt. He holds himself above the law.”

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, who issued the violations and fine to Hickenlooper, has yet to issue a written opinion on his ethics issues, and is not expected to do so before July 21, according to the commission’s executive director.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who in part recruited Hickenlooper to run for the seat, joined him in his legal battles, paying for Democratic mega-firm Perkins Coie to join the case in the final weeks of litigation.

Hickenlooper points to the fact that the original complaint was filed by what appears to be a Republican dark money group, according to Colorado Public Radio.

PHOTO: In this Aug. 10, 2019, file photo, then Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks in Des Moines, Iowa.
In this Aug. 10, 2019, file photo, then Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP, FILE

Still, Romanoff highlights Hickenlooper's original distaste for running for Senate.

“I mean, he told people he would be a terrible senator, he didn't want the job, he would hate doing it, he wasn't cut out for it. It's a weird way to begin a job interview,” Romanoff said of Hickenlooper’s resistance to join the race. “And then he spent the last nine months proving it. I mean he's run a campaign that's frankly arrogant.”

Trimpa acknowledged Hickenlooper's tendency to trip over his words, and what that could mean for November

"I do think that whoever wins this primary will end up beating Cory, but I do think it’s true you can only stumble down so many stairs," he said. "But I think John is more progressive than people give him credit. I just think...the way he's come across as of late just haven't helped."

Romanoff consistently points to Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign, where he carved himself out as a moderate Democrat and criticized progressive policies like the ones Romanoff has adopted.

“John’s whole presidential campaign basis was opposition to the progressive agenda, Medicare for All, Green New Deal. He demonizes this stuff as socialism,” Romanoff said. “He ridiculed Sanders, who won the Colorado primary. I just think he's out of step with the moment.”

The ‘moment’ does appear to be lending itself to progressive politics in Colorado, according to Michael Berry, an associate professor in political science at the University of Colorado-Denver.

“There might be more appetite for a more progressive candidate, given the salience of race and racial justice right now,” Berry said.

Both candidates, in their first in-person debate on Tuesday night, recognized the positions of power they have held in elected office, and how they could have worked harder to combat racial inequalities.

Hickenlooper issued a mid-debate apology for his ‘slave ship’ comments on Tuesday night, saying he did not intend for them to cause pain, and that the country must recognize that slavery is a “nagging, persistent shame of this country” which has denied equality for too many Americans.

He pointed to his time as the mayor of Denver, where he worked to implement police reform. The improvements he made to the policing system were not sufficient enough, he said, specifying that holding officers accountable through policing reforms is the start of correcting inequality in American society.

The context of this year’s election, during a nationwide reckoning with racism, as well as Hickenlooper’s ethical issues, has created an interesting case for June 30, according to Berry.

“We have all-mail elections here in Colorado and turnout in the 2018 midterms was about 10 points higher than the national average. The all-mail balloting does suggest that turnout will be higher,” Berry told ABC News. “With Hickenlooper’s name recognition, and again experiencing winning statewide office, I would have pegged him as the prohibitive favorite before some of this ethics investigation and findings came out.”