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Opinion: Hickenlooper stumbles 

click to enlarge Hick’s gaffes have opened the door to a possible primary win by Andrew Romanoff. - GAGE SKIDMORE
  • Gage Skidmore
  • Hick’s gaffes have opened the door to a possible primary win by Andrew Romanoff.

Here’s a question I never thought I’d ask myself or anyone else: Could Andrew Romanoff possibly upset John Hickenlooper in the U.S. Senate primary?

I don’t ask this question lightly, and it’s probably safe to assume, as the Democratic establishment does, that the answer is no. But if you ask a slightly different question, whether Hickenlooper has had a very tough few weeks, the answer is as obvious as the tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to Colorado streets.

And Romanoff, who has had trouble in this campaign even getting noticed, could be the beneficiary. If he’s not, it will be time for Romanoff, who has never won a statewide race or, for that matter, any race in more than a decade, to finally close down the electioneering tent.

Certainly, the political contrast between the two couldn’t be clearer. Hickenlooper is a moderate Democrat in the Joe Biden mold, who, in his ill-fated presidential run, was calling Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All socialism. Romanoff is running on Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a host of progressive ideas and a Bernie-like disdain for outside money.

Sanders has had great success in Colorado caucuses/primaries, but it’s no secret that Coloradans tend to elect moderates. And people who know tell me that no modern elected Colorado senator, including Gary Hart and Tim Wirth, has run with a platform as progressive as Romanoff’s.

And yet. If the door is now even slightly open, it was Hick who kicked it ajar.

The bad news began for Hick with the ethics commission hearing, in which Hickenlooper would be held in violation on two counts. Hick says he takes responsibility for the violations, but he also says, with good reason, that the allegations were brought in bad faith by Republicans wishing to smear him.

Coloradans know Hickenlooper pretty well. Even if he hangs out with a lot of rich people and seems to have an affinity for private jets, most don’t think of him as corrupt. But then there was the unforgivable blowing off of the subpoena.


As you may recall, Hick failed to appear on the day he was scheduled and was held in contempt by the ethics commission, which, I’m told, was a first. The next day, he came hat in hand — OK, the hat must have been out of camera view — and was allowed to testify.

But in last week’s second debate, Colorado Sun political reporter John Frank asked Hickenlooper repeatedly why he thought he was above the law. That is, as we say, a tough but fair question. Hickenlooper had no answer. At some point, unless he wants to be dogged on this issue until November — if he makes it that far — Hickenlooper is going to have to do a major mea culpa.

Some were wondering if Hick would make a statement Friday afternoon at the ethics committee hearing to decide his penalty, but he didn’t. He did, however, apparently listen in. What he heard was the commission refusing a request to purge the contempt citation and determining he would be hit with a $2,750 penalty for the two violations.
And then there’s the little issue of Black Lives Matter and the current zeitgeist and Hick’s problem addressing it. I mean, there’s something in the air — thankfully, no longer tear gas — that is different, very different. The state legislature, Denver officials, even the Denver school board and similar officeholders across the country are already beginning to respond.

Those who have taken to the streets, most of them presumably Democrats, are clearly looking for something bold. And yet, at a Black-justice forum, Hickenlooper and Romanoff were asked what Black Lives Matter means to them, and Hick, in the most tone-deaf manner possible, said it meant every life matters. He had to apologize the next day, saying he had tripped over his words.

He stumbled again in last week’s first debate, struggling to come up with a good answer. He finally got it pretty much right in the last debate or would have if he hadn’t said — in a typical Hick gaffe — that George Floyd had been shot. In any case, it has been a long and unnecessary journey, which won’t soon be ending. Romanoff, by the way, has a sure and clear response to the issue.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to believe Hick is the favorite. He has a huge ID advantage, a huge money advantage and an unbeaten streak in Colorado. Cory Gardner also has an unbeaten streak, but only in years in which Donald Trump is not at the head of the Republican ticket.

And, in case you hadn’t noticed, Trump is at the head of that ticket this year. I’m thinking that no leader has been as far underwater as Trump in Colorado in the past 90 million years, which my 5-year-old, dinosaur-obsessed grandson explained to me was during the Cretaceous period. And Gardner is nearly always referred to as the most vulnerable incumbent Republican in the U.S. Senate. And even so, he clings ever more tightly to Trump. Is someone headed for extinction?

There hasn’t been any recent public polling in the Democratic primary, and most of us are flying blind. But I’m sure Hick is polling — Romanoff says he’s not — and we’ll know if Hick is worried if he begins to roll out his famously clever campaign ads, which his team was probably saving for the main event in November.

As Romanoff likes to remind Hickenlooper, he often said during his ill-fated presidential run that he wasn’t cut out to be a senator. But when Hick changed his mind, he eventually all but cleared the field — except, in the end, for Romanoff.

But Romanoff doesn’t just have Hickenlooper to look to for help. He also has Trump, whose latest provocation was to announce his first post-shutdown rally would come Friday in Tulsa. That would be Juneteenth, the day on which the ending of slavery is celebrated. And Tulsa is the site, 99 years ago, of among the worst cases of white-on-Black terrorism — at least 300 Black people were killed — in American history. Kamala Harris tweeted that “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome-home party.” In fact, it was so obvious that Trump finally, under pressure, had to move the rally to Saturday, a day later.

Still, people will be in the streets. And I would expect police reform or police defunding or police restructuring, along with Black Lives Matter and racial injustice, will remain the most important topics in the primary race. And it will matter, I’d think, which candidate best meets the moment.

That’s Hickenlooper’s challenge — and Romanoff’s outside chance.

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.

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