Hart Still Seriously Exploring Senate Race

Posted September 12, 2003 at 2:38pm

When Denver Democrats held back-to-back fundraisers last week for Colorado and Texas legislators who had fought Republican redistricting efforts in their states, one of the organizers of the events wondered whether former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) would show up.

A Hart appearance, the party stalwart figured, would be a signal that the former Senator was closer to jumping into the 2004 Senate race.

Inscrutable to the end, Hart didn’t make it — but he did send regrets through an intermediary, explaining that he had been out of the country.

In any event, several signs suggest that the former two-time presidential candidate is continuing to seriously explore the possibility of trying to reclaim his old seat in his quest to be a relevant player in national policy debates.

Hart is said to have meetings scheduled with Colorado Democratic activists in the next several days, and late last week he met with Denver-based pollster Rick Ridder to discuss the results of a new poll Ridder’s firm had just conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on the Colorado Senate race.

The DSCC has released part of the poll, showing Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) with strikingly low favorability ratings and re-elect numbers. People familiar with the poll said there was encouraging news for Hart as well.

“The results show that Gary Hart has a strong base of support in Colorado,” said Mike Stratton, a Democratic consultant who has worked for Hart in the past.

Sources said the charges of infidelity that drove Hart out of the 1988 presidential race did not seem to matter much to voters who participated in the poll.

Arnold Grossman, a Democratic media consultant who worked for Hart’s two Senate campaigns, said “personal considerations” would probably determine whether Hart runs.

“The last time I spoke with him about the Senate race, he saw some opportunities, but he also had some concerns,” Grossman said. “When he weighs these decisions, he weighs them in terms of how this affects his family and the peace and quiet he has enjoyed since he left politics.”

Through a colleague at his Denver law firm, Hart refused to be interviewed for this story. “He will not be commenting about the Colorado Senate race,” Pam Martinson said. “He has not reached a decision and he will not be commenting.”

Friends and old political associates are in the dark about the plans of the former two-term Senator, who contemplated running for president again this year but backed off.

“I’ve talked to him a little bit about this, but I don’t have a read on it,” said Bill Shore, a longtime Hart staffer. “I think he was a little bit taken aback by the interest of the Democratic Senators and the Democratic committee.”

Democrats continue to believe that Campbell, despite being one of the most colorful figures in state politics, can be beaten by the right opponent. But with Rep. Mark Udall, state Attorney General Ken Salazar and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb all hesitating, party leaders have been unable to find a top-tier candidate and have turned to Hart. So far, only middle school principal Michael Miles is in the Democratic race.

In Hart, Democrats believe they have a seasoned, respected policy expert who will not have to raise as much money as a typical challenger.

“Hart is the one guy who could wage a serious campaign without having to raise or have the kind of dollars that a modern-day Senate campaign needs,” Stratton said. “He could go to the free media and talk issues.”

Hart’s expertise on national security matters, they say, is an especially attractive commodity in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world. “I think this is one of those rare times when the needs of the nation fit the strengths of the man,” Shore said.

But Eric Sondermann, another Denver-based Democratic strategist, cautioned that at age 66 and out of office since 1986, Hart is not as well-known in the rapidly growing Centennial State as some operatives think.

“A lot of his old constituency has died off,” Sondermann said.

What’s more, he said, Campbell always polls low in the year before his elections, but sees his numbers shoot up after running TV spots showing him riding horses and motorcycles.

If Democrats are looking for a fresh face against the 70-year-old incumbent, they may have one in state Sen. Dan Grossman, 35, who said last week he is “seriously thinking about” entering the Senate race.

Dan Grossman — who happens to be Arnold Grossman’s son — said he would defer to Udall, Salazar or Hart if they ran.

Grossman, who was state House Democratic leader before being elected to the Senate in 2002, has been widely expected to run for state attorney general in 2006. He said he has not reached out to national Democrats yet but has talked informally to several state party leaders about the Senate race.

Arnold Grossman said he has talked to Hart about the fact that Hart and his son are eyeing the same office, and said Hart told him, “Your first obligation and responsibility is to Dan.”