Colorado is turning blue. Will that help Andrew Romanoff?

Former state House speaker faces Hickenlooper in next week’s Senate primary

Andrew Romanoff is once again taking on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s pick in a Senate primary.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Andrew Romanoff is once again taking on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s pick in a Senate primary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 25, 2020 at 10:30am, Updated at 2:30pm

Andrew Romanoff is about to find out what, if any, difference a decade makes. 

The former Colorado House speaker is taking on former Gov. John Hickenlooper in the state’s Democratic Senate primary next week, in a contest reminiscent of Romanoff’s 2010 Senate primary race against Michael Bennet, now the state’s senior senator.

Democrats believe the state has moved in their direction since then, and that shift has made GOP Sen. Cory Gardner extremely vulnerable in November.

For Romanoff, the question is whether the state has changed so much in the last decade that voters will rally behind a candidate who supports liberal policies such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.

Romanoff and his allies believe it has.

“Our platform hasn’t changed,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview. “It’s just gotten more urgent.”

Rallying the base?

Next week, just like 10 years ago, Romanoff is taking on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s preferred candidate. Because of that dynamic, he is once again positioning himself as an anti-establishment outsider, even though he was a veteran state legislator who was endorsed by former President Bill Clinton in the 2010 race.

He’s also once again running to the left. Romanoff supported a government-run, single-payer health care plan back in 2010. But some Colorado Democrats noted that he hasn’t always been a progressive champion.

Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist who worked for Romanoff when he was speaker in 2006, described him as “middle of the road.”

“We were coming out of the Clinton era where Democrats were trying to be more centrist, and he fit that mold,” said Chapin, who voted for Hickenlooper.

After he lost the 2010 race, Romanoff unsuccessfully challenged GOP Rep. Mike Coffman in the swing 6th District in 2014. When asked in a debate whether he believed a single-payer health care system was still the best approach, Romanoff responded, “No, I don’t think we can afford to disrupt the country now.”

Romanoff recently told The Colorado Sun that whether or not he is a moderate “depends on the issue,” but he maintains his progressive positions on health care and climate change “because I think the problems demand it.”

Asked about lessons learned from his 2010 race, Romanoff told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday, “I’m continuing to champion universal single-payer health care, as I did then; speak out for bold climate action, as I did then; for social justice, as I did then.”

He said he was glad that more Americans were supporting those positions.

“It’s pretty clear that the country has come to see that broken, for-profit insurance model doesn’t work, that ignoring the climate crisis doesn't work,” he said.

Unlike Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker, a progressive who took on the DSCC’s preferred candidate in this week’s primary, Romanoff hasn’t received high-profile endorsements from liberal leaders such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Warren has actually endorsed Hickenlooper, something he touted in a TV ad released Tuesday.

Those endorsements can direct an army of grassroots donors to an underdog candidate, and Romanoff has struggled to match Hickenlooper’s fundraising. The former governor had raised $12.6 million and his campaign had $5.9 million on hand as of June 10, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Romanoff had raised $2.9 million, with $795,000 left in his campaign account.

Romanoff has been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, a group that aims to combat climate change, and Our Revolution, which was founded by former Sanders staffers. On Wednesday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is aligned with Warren, also endorsed Romanoff.

“We’re choosing to back Romanoff as the more progressive of the two [candidates],” PCCC spokeswoman Maria Langholz said.

A bluer state

The state and the party have moved to the left in recent years, so a more liberal candidate might have a better shot today than in 2010, when Romanoff lost the primary to Bennet by 9 points. 

Since 2010, Colorado Democrats have surpassed Republicans in voter registration, although unaffiliated voters still make up the largest share of the electorate. Democratic presidential candidates have carried the state in the last three elections. Gardner is also now one of only two Colorado Republican to hold statewide office.

But some state Democratic strategists said the primary is still Hickenlooper’s to lose, especially because of his financial advantage and high name recognition. They also questioned whether the primary electorate is actually more liberal.

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Unaffiliated voters can cast ballots in the Democratic primary, which could have a moderating effect, Colorado Democratic consultant Rick Ridder said.

Chapin suggested that the shift to the left had been accelerated by Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, rather than a fundamental ideological change.

“The electorate has gotten bluer because of Trump,” she said.

Trump lost the state by 5 points in 2016, and Democrats believe Gardner’s ties to the president make him vulnerable in November. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilt Democratic.

Chapin and Ridder also said voters may be thinking more strategically and less ideologically.

“Colorado is very pragmatic,” she said. “I’ve heard from so many people: ‘All we want to do is beat Cory Gardner. Who’s the person most able to beat Cory Gardner?’”

Republicans could be helping Romanoff by running television ads ahead of the primary that could drive Democrats away from Hickenlooper. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has run ads highlighting a recent finding by Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission that Hickenlooper violated the state’s ban on gifts for public officials while he was in office. Hickenlooper’s campaign has called the allegations “political smears” and noted the vast majority of them were dismissed.

Romanoff said in a debate last week that he was that best candidate to take on Gardner because he led Democrats to majorities in the state legislature and he’s willing to buck his party.

“I’ve demonstrated a willingness, even by running, of standing up to my own party,” he said at the debate, which was hosted by Colorado Public Radio News, Denver 7 and The Denver Post.

“Andrew hasn’t won an election in 14 years,” Hickenlooper shot back, noting his own victories in the governor’s races in 2010 and 2014, both dismal years for Democrats. Hickenlooper did recently make an unsuccessful run for president, during which he said he did not want to run for Senate, but he changed his mind and ran for the seat anyway.

Romanoff’s failed campaigns came up earlier in the debate as well, when moderator Justin Wingerter of The Denver Post asked him, “Do you want political power more than Coloradans want you?”

Romanoff laughed and responded, “I guess people will have to decide that pretty soon.”