• Seth Masket

Surprise, the better-known candidate with more money and party backing won despite gaffes


John Hickenlooper (source: Wikipedia Commons)

There are some lessons to be learned from John Hickenlooper's recent victory over Andrew Romanoff in Colorado's US Senate Democratic primary contest. And they really come down to an important lesson about what matters in elections, and especially primaries.


Some will follow elections and say it mostly comes down to the fundamentals. In general presidential elections, that often refers to things like the state of the economy, conditions of war and peace, etc. But in a Senate primary, we could think of fundamentals as including the basic contours of the nomination contest, including name recognition, institutional support for the candidates, endorsements, ideological reputations, and other things not easily manipulated by the campaigns.


Others will follow elections and focus on the things the candidate and campaign have more direct control over, such as their speeches, advertisements, debate performances, etc.


Basically, this is about campaigns versus fundamentals as the main drivers of election results. I tend to fall into the fundamentals camp. Yes, that means I'll occasionally miss some interesting primary results. If you tend to think money and institutional support and other fundamental features of a race drive primary results, you might have underestimated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's 2018 primary challenge to Rep. Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House and the chair of the local New York party organization. She legitimately out-campaigned him to deprive him of his seat. But that result was the unusual one in 2018; the vast majority of progressive insurgencies that year resulted in the "establishment" favorite prevailing in the primary.


We got a good lesson in this from Joe Biden's Democratic presidential nomination, as well. He was hardly the most eloquent speaker, the most gaffe-free debater, the biggest spender, or the most nimble campaigner of the vast presidential candidate field, but he did have substantial party support behind him. Party insiders leaned toward him (and away from other candidates) and helped him prevail in the primaries and caucuses because they saw him as a winner for the general election. Another good case for the fundamentals.


Which brings us to this year's congressional primaries. Yes, there have been a few interesting insurgencies in this year's Democratic primaries, including several in New York and a surprisingly strong performance by Charles Booker against Amy McGrath in the Kentucky Senate primary. But for the most part, establishment favorites tend to win. And that's what we saw in the Colorado Senate race.


Now, the basis for a Hickenlooper victory has been present for a long time. Democratic leaders at the state and national level coaxed him out of the presidential race last year precisely because they saw him as a slam dunk for the nomination and the best hope for taking a Senate seat from the Republicans, even though he very publicly stated he didn't particularly want the job. They made sure he had more than enough funding for a statewide race. Hickenlooper has essentially universal name recognition in Colorado, having recently served two terms as its governor and, before that, two terms as the mayor of its most populous city. (His opponent, by contrast, last held public office more than a decade ago.) He maintained very strong approval ratings throughout this state and city service. He has a widespread reputation as a pragmatic Democrat, the sort of candidate who tends to do well in Colorado. By all these fundamentals, Hickenlooper looked like the obvious choice.


But he drew a strong challenger in former statehouse Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Romanoff is a skilled public speaker and debater, challenging Hickenlooper on a number of unforced errors, including drawing out a minor ethical infraction into a multi-week scandal and making some comments about race that one might very charitably describe as awkward. Romanoff ran some hard-hitting ads against Hickenlooper, a candidate who is famously reticent to go negative. If you were to focus just on campaign activities, it would be hard not to come away with the idea that Hickenlooper was heading for an embarrassing loss, as the New York Times seemed to suggest over the weekend.


But those just aren't the things that tend to move a whole lot of votes. Take away all of Hickenlooper's built-in advantages and make it a contest of skill against skill, and it would have been a lot more competitive. But that's not what most contests look like. Campaign skills and gaffes make for far more interesting viewing, but if you want to know what's going to happen in a contest, look to the fundamentals.

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