Hickenlooper plows onward despite staff shakeup and fundraising issues

PHOTO:Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at an event on April 27, 2019, in Las Vegas.PlayEthan Miller/Getty Images, FILE
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Just two weeks after a major staff exodus from John Hickenlooper's campaign -- six key aides abruptly headed for the door on the heels of a debate performance where the former Colorado governor failed to dazzle -- the former governor, despite fundraising and donor-number issues, is plowing straight ahead.

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Among those who left -- his campaign manager, communications director, digital director, New Hampshire political director, national finance director and his deputy finance director -- sources told ABC News aides sat Hickenlooper down after the Democratic National Committee announced requirements for the September debate to discuss with him other options.

But, sources told ABC News, Hickenlooper was undeterred, adding staffers who'd stay the course.

Sources with knowledge of both eras of the campaign said they feel Hickenlooper has chosen the "less graceful route" -- not bowing out at a dignified moment, but scraping it out to the bitter end -- and that those surrounding him won't tell him otherwise.

The plight of Hickenlooper's campaign illustrates a critical question for candidates in a race brimming with contenders: With such an arrhythmic, flavor-of-the-week news cycle, at what point, if at all, should a candidate consistently in the lower polling tiers decide to pull out?

For many candidates "they're 'never say die.' They're people who believe victory is just around the corner -- that it's always darkest before the dawn," expert political analyst Larry Sabato told ABC News. "Now, that doesn't mean they'll stay in forever, because obviously only one is going to be the nominee. But when do they get out? I don't think they decide to get out: It's decided for them: when their money dries up, when they can't pay their staff, they can't pay for travel."

"If they're wealthy like Tom Steyer, I guess that doesn't matter," Sabato added. "But we're not even there yet, because we haven't even had the second debate. They're looking for their moment that they are 'made' -- and then, when that's over, reality is going to sink in with them, their staffers and their donors."

Many candidates have previously won elections before where they were long shots, and they're convinced they can do it again.

"That's what creates the psychology that the press and the pundits and the donors 'don't know what I know,'" Sabato continued. "'I know how to win. I've done it before. They were all wrong before.' And it's hard to argue with that. So they continue running until they run out of fuel."

PHOTO: Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper discusses gun control and death penalty issues with Anthony Thompson on April 6, 2019, in Charleston, S.C. Meg Kinnard/AP, FILE
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper discusses gun control and death penalty issues with Anthony Thompson on April 6, 2019, in Charleston, S.C.

Hickenlooper's campaign financials reveal he's raised just $1.15 million this quarter, with less than $1 million cash on hand. Sources have told ABC News it's from about 13,000 donors, roughly one-tenth of what's required to qualify for the September debate.

Amid such a wobbly showing, fresh hands now stand at the campaign helm -- steering a "reboot" era.

Peter Cunningham takes the communications wheel vacated by Lauren Hitt. He inherits the "heavy lift" with eyes open about the campaign's threadbare pockets.

"Obviously, we've got a big hill to climb," Cunningham told ABC News. "I didn't pay close attention to the last campaign, so I can't tell you what they did wrong. … It's unequivocal that our polling is low, and our fundraising is low, and we've got to address both. My job is message. And we have to sharpen our message -- we have to get it out."

Connecting with people -- "People start to say, 'He's right,'" Cunningham said of Hickenlooper -- will be key.

Cunningham also told ABC News he won't be the one calling it quits, and he won't lean on Hickenlooper to instead run for the Senate. It’s a markedly different tack -- and one sources looking at the last campaign object to.

"I feel in that role, you have a responsibility to really advise someone, regardless of your paycheck," a source familiar with the situation told ABC News. "If you're taking money from someone, I think you need to advise honestly. But there are other consultants who feel it's not their role."

Cunningham said: "That's not up to me -- that's up to him. He asked me to help him run for president, and I'm here to help him run for president."

PHOTO: Former Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the United States Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington D.C., Jan. 24, 2019. Yuri Gripas/Reuters, FILE
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the United States Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington D.C., Jan. 24, 2019.

Hickenlooper's record of success as a businessman, mayor and governor in a purple state still can be leveraged into a stronger run, Cunningham said. The campaign is focusing, at least for now, on Iowa.

"We need to move the polls in Iowa, and that'll get attention outside of Iowa," Cunningham said. "We have to show that we could be viable in Iowa. And Iowa's not far from Colorado -- it's a big rural state, got a big rural segment, practically speaking. We're not able to compete in that many states right now, so if we can move the numbers there, then I think we can make a difference."

"People want fireworks," Cunningham continued. "They want Kamala Harris and Joe Biden arguing about busing. But that's not the number one issue people are voting on."

More people care about jobs, the economy, retirement, he said.

PHOTO:Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, applauds at a campaign house party, Feb. 13, 2019, in Manchester, N.H. Elise Amendola/AP
PHOTO:Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, applauds at a campaign house party, Feb. 13, 2019, in Manchester, N.H.

Sources with firsthand knowledge of the campaign bankroll – and staff – don't know how the campaign will afford the road ahead in Iowa, or beyond. A source familiar with the situation told ABC News several more staffers have left the campaign in recent weeks -- first deputies, a financial staffer and two digital staffers.

"There aren't a whole lot of people left," the source said. "Many are people who just want to stay in Denver, and want to end things on good terms."