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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

A party-orchestrated departure

John Hickenlooper (photo by Gage Skidmore)

Back in February, political scientist Nolan McCarty laid down the marker for what a strong party should be able to do:

A strong party, that is, should be able to steer quality candidates to where they are needed. I can't say what will end up happening with the Texans still running for president, but one Coloradan, former governor John Hickenlooper, is dropping out of the presidential race today (I am updating my Winnowed spreadsheet), quite likely to try to unseat a Republican Senate incumbent, and the party has played a heavy hand in that decision.

In terms of winnowing, this may be the most significant candidate withdrawal since that of Sen. Sherrod Brown (OH) in March. Both are popular statewide officials in swing states with some moderate credentials who could nonetheless not find a path to the nomination.

Hickenlooper's withdrawal from the presidential race and possible Senate candidacy was certainly, to some extent, in his own self-interest. The presidential campaign just wasn't catching fire. His debate performances weren't winning many converts, his fundraising was underwhelming, he had essentially zero endorsements outside his home state, and he was failing to qualify for later debates.

But this describes quite a few candidates, none of whom are dropping out today. Hickenlooper is transitioning out right now in large part because the party orchestrated it.

According to The Hill, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has been trying to steer Hickenlooper toward the Senate race in an effort to win control of that chamber. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Hickenlooper and his longtime friend and fellow presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet drove around Iowa last week discussing the terms for Hickenlooper's withdrawal.

Party insiders brought a variety of pressures on Hickenlooper, from publicly urging that he change races to commissioning polls showing his massive advantages in the primary field and in a general election against Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. Some of the same groups that are commissioning these polls are also promising to raise money for a Hickenlooper Senate run. Another suggestion of party influence is that Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who had long been considering entering the Senate race, decided that she would stay out of it.

The available evidence suggests that Democratic elites at both the state and national level have been working to push Hickenlooper out of the presidential race and steer him into the Senate race.

Now, there are already quite a few strong candidates in the Senate race, including former statehouse speaker Andrew Romanoff, former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston, former statehouse majority leader Alice Madden, and former U.S. ambassador Dan Baer. Hickenlooper's entry could well end up pushing a number of these candidates out.

That nomination is not a guarantee for Hickenlooper, of course. (He'd likely be in a much stronger position if he'd just announced his interest in the Senate seat last year and forgone a presidential bid.) Hickenlooper, a moderate whom Colorado's business community has long liked, was seen as about as liberal a Democrat who could win statewide in 2010 when he first ran for governor. But the state, and definitely the Democratic Party, have moved left since then, while he doesn't seem to have. Despite his clear advantages in early primary polls, Democratic activists might want someone a bit closer to them on policy.

That said, it's reasonable to assume that the same focus on electability that has gripped Democrats nationwide is also in play within Colorado politics. Democrats control every statewide office in Colorado except for the U.S. Senate seat, and Democratic activists have been seeking to bring down Gardner for his entire term, and especially since his endorsement of Donald Trump earlier this year. The idea of nominating a sure thing, rather than taking a chance on a younger, more liberal Democrat, may just be too tempting for Colorado's Democrats to pass up.

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