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Colorado has never had a female senator. Could that change in 2020?

Democratic Senate primary field expected to be a ‘mosh pit’

Former Colorado state House Speaker Crisanta Duran has been working with EMILY’s List as she considers a Senate run. (Brennan Linsley/AP file photo)

Colorado Democrats have their sights on Sen. Cory Gardner, one of the most vulnerable senators in 2020 and one of two Republicans running in a state won by Hillary Clinton. And some see the race as an opportunity to do something historic: send a woman to the U.S. Senate. 

Women now make up a majority in the state House after the recent midterms. And wins by Democratic women helped the party recapture the state Senate. But higher office has proved more elusive. Colorado is one of just five states that has never elected a female governor or senator. 

Former Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak said there have been ongoing discussions among female activists about the importance of having a woman challenge Gardner.

Some, like former Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler, have already made their choices known in the Senate race, while others are waiting for the field to shake out. But they’re united by their desire for a female nominee.

“One of the things that Gail and I and others are concerned about is a history … where a bunch of guys in the background decide who is going to be the candidate,” said Waak, who is remaining neutral in the primary . “We don’t want that to happen.”

Also watch: First 2020 Senate race ratings are here

Weighing options 

Two women — scientist Trish Zornio, who trained with Emerge Colorado and has been traveling across the state, and activist Lorena Garcia — are already running for the Democratic nomination. But female activists haven’t yet coalesced around either so far.

Garcia, the executive director of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, said the possibility of electing a female senator was not part of her decision to run. But she added, “I do strongly believe that it’s about time.”

Some political players, like Schoettler, are already planning to back former state House Speaker Crisanta Duran, who is considering a run. 

Members of Schoettler’s Electing Women PAC, which helps fundraise for gubernatorial and senatorial candidates, have already voted to make Duran a top priority in 2020, according to the group’s director Heather Lurie. 

Duran, the first Latina speaker of the Colorado state House, has also been working with EMILY’s List as she weighs a run. (The abortion rights group often assists candidates in the early stages of their campaigns.)

Duran won EMILY’s List’s “Rising Star” award in 2016. Other winners have included Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, a potential Senate candidate this cycle, and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley, who knocked off a Democratic incumbent last year.

Multiple Democratic sources in Colorado listed state Sen. Kerry Donovan as a potential candidate. She could have a geographic advantage in a primary, hailing from a rural area of the state with many of the other candidates from Denver. 

Rep. Diana DeGette, the only woman in Colorado’s seven-member House delegation, doesn’t appear to be considering a run.

“We have many smart and capable women in this state who I know would do a tremendous job serving the people of Colorado in the United States Senate, and I am actively encouraging them to run,” she said in a statement.

So far female activists aren’t overly concerned about multiple women in the Democratic primary splitting the vote, making it less likely for a woman to win. 

“I don’t think it’s any more of an issue for several strong women to be going in a primary than it is to have several strong men,” Schoettler said.

The glass ceiling

Ask Democrats in Colorado why they haven’t yet elected a female senator or governor, and they’ll often respond that it’s “odd” or “embarrassing.”

But Schoettler pointed out that women largely haven’t run for these offices.

Before former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last year, Schoettler was the last woman to compete for the governor’s mansion, narrowly losing in 1998. Former Colorado first lady Dottie Lamm was the last Democratic woman to run for Senate, losing the same year to GOP Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Some women are still stung by Kennedy’s second-place finish in last year’s gubernatorial primary, noting that she was outspent by Rep. Jared Polis, the eventual winner and current governor.

“The issue has been fundraising,” said Jennifer Benson, co-founder of InvestHER, a group aligned with Electing Women that organizes young professional female donors. “That is why we feel what we’re doing is so important because it takes money to win.”

Democratic women are expected to be critical voters in Colorado. Active registered female voters outnumber men 1.7 million to 1.6 million. And nearly 150,000 more women than men voted in 2018, according to the Colorado secretary of state. 

Crowded field 

Democrats acknowledge that the affable Gardner, who unseated Sen. Mark Udall in 2014, won’t be easy to beat. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Colorado Senate race a Toss-up.

Some activists believe a woman would be a stronger candidate to take on Gardner, given their success last year. 

Katie Farnan, one of the leaders of the progressive group Indivisible Front Range Resistance, said a female nominee, particularly one of color, could energize Democratic turnout. She noted that competitive state races featuring female candidates were “the hot places to be canvassing” last cycle.

But any candidate would have to survive a crowded Democratic primary first. 

“It’s going to be a mosh pit,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado.

Two high-profile candidates are already in the race — former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who finished third in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who lost bids for the U.S. House in 2014 and the Senate in 2010. Both men have proved to be strong fundraisers.

Potential Democratic entrants include former U.S. Attorney John Walsh, and Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Joe Neguse.

Perlmutter initially decided to run for governor last year but later dropped out. The seven-term congressman told Roll Call last week he was thinking about a Senate run but didn’t know when he would make a decision.

Another potential contender is former Dan Baer, who served as the Ambassador for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe during President Barack Obama's administration. Baer was running for Perlmutter's open seat last year until Perlmutter opted to run for re-election.

Some Democrats also mentioned former Gov. John Hickenlooper as a possible candidate, but cautioned that he appears to be focused on a potential presidential bid instead and has indicated he is not interested in running for Senate. 

Republicans say a crowded primary could result in a liberal nominee without appeal to moderate and unaffiliated voters. But Democrats don’t think that will be an issue.

“You can ask Walker Stapleton how that worked out for him,” said Silverii, referring to last year’s GOP gubernatorial nominee who lost to Polis.

Stapleton, a two-term state treasurer, garnered about 100,000 more votes last year than Gardner did in 2014, but he lost to Polis by 10 points.

Correction 3:09 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misspelled former Colorado GOP gubernatorial nominee Walker Stapleton’s last name.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.