EXCLUSIVE: Oil And Gas Gets Better Of Two Democrats In Colorado’s Senate Primary
The 2020 U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Cory Gardner and his Democratic opponent, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper—widely expected to be among the state’s most expensive races ever—will likely feature a much more subdued battle over oil and gas policies due to the centrist positions expressed by the challenger. National headwinds will likely overshadow and displace state policy arguments in favor of macro-level discussions about pandemics and racial justice, according to two of the state’s top political observers.
David Flaherty, CEO of Magellan Strategies, and Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster and Director of Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver, shared their opinions on the state of the race, including the position of oil and gas regulations as a campaign issue.
Given the weighty external factors of national discussions about health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and jobs affected by the virus, and conversations about racial injustice flaring up at nearly the same time, both experts seemed inclined to look more closely at qualities of likeability and electability for both candidates and weighed the effect that President Donald Trump would have on Gardner’s chance of re-election.
Oil and gas policies will show up, however, as they did throughout the Democratic primary, which exposed deep divisions within the party, as progressive anti-fracking activists pushed Hickenlooper’s challenger, even forcing the two-term governor and oil and gas supporter to shift to the left.
“For oil and gas, the oil and gas community and industry in Colorado, they got the better candidate of two evils to face Cory Gardner,” Flaherty told Western Wire. “Andrew Romanoff would have aggressively embraced stronger regulation, climate change, regulations of water and air,” 1.
“If the Democrats have a good November, and they have such a large majority which is looking likely [in the House], and taking the Senate, you’re going to have national legislation percolating which will have a real impact on oil and gas industry,” he said, with federal efforts overshadowing Colorado’s own regulatory framework going on under SB 181 and subsequent rulemakings. That scenario would have been much different if Hickenlooper had failed to make the ticket, according to Flaherty.
“If Romanoff had been the candidate and gone on to the general election, he would have been a strong vote for very restrictive regulatory policies, without question. John Hickenlooper, despite him moving to the left to be better suited to the Democratic primary voter of today compared to 2014 and 2018, as a Senator will provide more of an ear to the oil and gas industry and their concerns over what is policy that is perhaps more collaborative than restrictive,” Flaherty said.
Ciruli told Western Wire that Hickenlooper’s substantial record and more centrist positioning on oil and gas didn’t seem to matter in the primary, with Romanoff’s attempt to push Green New Deal and climate change positions, including a ban on fracking on federal lands, not appearing to sway the party’s primary constituents, which included unaffiliated voters.
“Hickenlooper’s substantial win was mostly a reflection of Colorado Democrats and their unaffiliated allies wanting to win, as opposed to just issue positions,” said Ciruli. “Romanoff certainly argued strongly that Hickenlooper was not sufficiently environmentally-oriented particularly on gas and oil.”
“Colorado’s voter landscape and oil and gas industry prominence provided Hickenlooper some room for error. ‘It’s probably a safer position in Colorado and the Democrats here didn’t mind it.'”
“Hickenlooper hit a number of environmental notes but he didn’t really apologize or change his position at all,” he added. Colorado’s voter landscape and oil and gas industry prominence provided Hickenlooper some room for error. “It’s probably a safer position in Colorado and the Democrats here didn’t mind it.”
Unaffiliated voters in Colorado have been allowed to vote in party primaries since 2018, and can select to vote either a Democratic or Republican ticket, but not both. This mix provided cover for Hickenlooper to maintain his more moderate oil and gas positions vis-a-vis Romanoff, who tacked to the party’s more activist roots and narrowed his path to victory.
“The polls indicated that most Democrats and unaffiliateds felt his sort of center position was fine, not too far left or too far right. He will be a formidable candidate against Cory Gardner,” said Ciruli.
Whether or not Hickenlooper maintains his independence on oil and gas positions if he is elected in November remains to be seen, but he will not start out his Senatorial career as a solid vote for Green New Deal legislation, according to Flaherty. The pressure in Washington, D.C. to move to the progressive positions on the environment, climate change, and oil and gas regulations will be significant, however.
“I do believe even in a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, I don’t think Hickenlooper will go all in with the Green New Deal and much more expansive regulatory policies. From what we’ve seen here I don’t believe he’d change his stripes, even though there will be a lot of pressure on him to do so,” said Flaherty.
“I do believe even in a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, I don’t think Hickenlooper will go all in with the Green New Deal and much more expansive regulatory policies.”
Ciruli thinks the former governor could hold a minority position in the Democratic party come November.
“Hickenlooper on gas and oil in general—the fact that he happens to be a moderate on it is quite clearly a minority position. It’s a minority position in the state, now in terms of the activists and the legislature and the governor, which is much more inclined toward regulation. It was a minority position on the debate stage when he was running for president,” said Ciruli. “By and large, and perhaps in their party platform they will be anti-fracking. He’ll be a voice, but he will be voice at a moment when his party is dominated by anti-hydrocarbon sentiments.”
The future of Colorado’s Senatorial delegation, currently a split between Gardner, the Republican, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, and votes for more stringent regulations and climate focus could hinge on the relative campaign and personal attributes of Gardner and Hickenlooper, instead of any strict policy differences, according to Flaherty and Ciruli.
“Unfortunately for Gardner, Hickenlooper as an incumbent, as a known entity, has an image of being likeable. His policy is well-known for not running negative ads. All the polling we’ve done on him going back 10 years, trying to understand how voters view John Hickenlooper is that he is not as a perfect candidate as he used to be or a perfect incumbent, but he’s still pretty close,” Flaherty said.
Some of that success is due to Hickenlooper’s persona, as well as his more centrist positioning than his successor, Gov. Jared Polis, or a more aggressive Democratic caucus elected in 2018, following Hickenlooper’s departure due to term limits.
“He’s always perceived to be pursuing policies that will help all Coloradans. He’s not viewed necessarily as partisan. People understand that he’s a little bit goofy and racial missteps he’s had over his career that were brought up, and this ethics violation, I think will have little to no impact whatsoever on influencing this race in November,” Flaherty continued.
Hickenlooper faced backlash in June for perceived campaign missteps in his handling of comments over ancient slave ships and cultural appropriation of Native American clothing. Last minute calls for him to exit the race in favor of Romanoff were unsuccessful, however. The former governor also had to deal with an ethics violation finding by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, in addition to a contempt charge as a result of skipping out of a remote hearing he was supposed to attend under subpoena.
Hickenlooper shouldn’t expect the general election to be as kind, Flaherty cautioned.
One of the strategies that will be considered by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and independent expenditure committees is trying to change that image of Hickenlooper—trying to make him appear out of touch, goofy, a little weird,” he said. Hickenlooper’s failed presidential bid and last-minute primary difficulties exposed some cracks in Hickenlooper’s electoral armor. “Just some things there that may give ad makers an opening to change his image among voters. However, I don’t think any of those are a done deal, silver bullet, or a fatal flaw in his character at this time.”
“But Hickenlooper has never truly had his feet put to the fire or tested, what happened in the primary were stumbles, they were not systematic, professionally pursued efforts to drive up his negatives. He has a pretty good image right now that needs to be torn down [by Gardner] and I don’t know that voters are going to bite,” Flaherty said.
Gardner’s personal advantages on the campaign trail, from a personal charisma and strong debating style he used to upset the incumbent Democrat, former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, should still be formidable. However, 2020 provides the Gardner with a strong uphill battle—a mix of external forces and a change in voter behavior that could weigh down the Republican in November, according to Ciruli.
“In a straight-up race I think Gardner could win. He’s been a good senator, he’s brought home a lot of benefits, he deals with things in a bipartisan fashion,” Ciruli said. “He’s a very good campaigner and a much better debater than Hickenlooper, but this is not a straight up race. He’s got the detriment of running with Trump who will probably lose by five points which he did last time, if not more.”
“In a straight-up race I think Gardner could win. He’s been a good senator, he’s brought home a lot of benefits, he deals with things in a bipartisan fashion.”
Those negative coattails, with voters sticking to a straight party line on the presidential and senatorial candidates, could negate Gardner’s structural potency in terms of fundraising, personal charisma, and ability to take the election battle to Hickenlooper at debates.
Voters may want to send a statement, rather than just assess the candidates on where they stand on critical issues, Ciruli explained.
“Trends indicate this is going to be a message vote, not just a vote on the quality of the candidates, which as I said, Cory would probably be very competitive. That’s the challenge,” said Ciruli.
Then there’s electoral numbers. The positives lean Hickenlooper’s direction, and Gardner will have his work cut out for him if he is to earn another six years in the Senate.
“The other problem facing Gardner is math. Younger voters are [likely] turning out to vote and there are simply not enough Republican-leaning unaffiliates and Republicans to counter the voters 44-years-old and younger that are going to be coming out to vote, not necessarily for Joe Biden but for George Floyd, racial justice, and against Donald Trump,” said Flaherty.
“That is, without question, the biggest problem facing Cory Gardner right now, and that’s a macro problem. There is absolutely nothing he can do about it. And the president’s unpopularity in Colorado, at an all-time low right now. You can’t do very well by running along this president right now in this state, as well as trying to be the better alternative to John Hickenlooper,” he added.
Paths To Victory Point In Different Directions For Hickenlooper, Gardner
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice concerns, and the dynamics surrounding President Trump, Western Wire asked Flaherty and Ciruli to put on their Monday Night Football “Keys to the Game” and offer Gardner and Hickenlooper advice that would help them win with four months to go until November’s election.
They both agreed that Gardner, despite being an incumbent, a prodigious fundraiser, and a force on the campaign trail, faces many headwinds not of his creation, including what could be an electoral albatross at the top of the ticket.
He has also made some unforced errors in avoiding Coloradans since his election, an oversight Flaherty argues he should remedy as soon as possible.
“Likeability held [Gardner] in with the unaffiliateds in 2014. Cory’s decision to avoid the media and not be publicly available has harmed his own image among many voters in Colorado,” Flaherty said. “He seems Washington-like and out of touch. [It] was probably not the best idea. But the bottom line is that that sort of policy of keeping his head down and thinking he’d be rewarded for his job in the U.S. Senate has backfired. It’s allowed Democratic groups to define him as out of touch and a creature of Washington and the Trump administration,” Flaherty said.
That includes his positions on oil and gas, but also in pushing legislation calling for the relocation of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to the West. Ultimately, the federal agency’s relocation proceeded in 2019, with staff beginning to move to Grand Junction, Colorado. The move received bipartisan support, including from Gov. Polis.
Gardner spearheaded efforts to pass the Great American Outdoors Act which also garnered significant bipartisan support on its way to passage in the Senate in June. Gardner pushed Trump to back the bill in February, arguing that the legislation would be the biggest conservation effort since President Theodore Roosevelt more than 100 years earlier.
Flaherty suggested that Gardner needs to reinvigorate his campaign messaging by showing, rather than telling Colorado voters what he’s accomplished in his first term.
“For him to correct that he needs to start building his campaign and make the case why he deserves another term. Nobody in this state has seen anything that he’s done in Washington. Udall overlooking this was fatal to his campaign in 2014. Cory needs to tell people what he’s been doing for the last six years and how that has made life better for Coloradans,” Flaherty said.
That’s job number one. His ads need to be literally him talking to the camera—no voiceovers, no images, none of the gimmicky stuff that are typical—it needs to be Cory. That will play to his strength. People need to get a sense by October of who he is and what he’s been doing,” he added. Failing to do that, especially recently, has allowed Democrats to define him and his positions. “That’s allowed him to be defined.”
As for Hickenlooper, Flaherty said the key will be discipline on the campaign trail, something that has proven difficult for the inconsistent candidate in the past.
“For Hickenlooper, he needs to remind people he’s always been a centrist Democrat, a center-leaning, center-left-leaning guy. He’s got the record to prove that. He can, in my opinion, afford to not be progressive voters’ and Democratic voters’ cup of tea. They will swallow their frustration with that and still vote for him. He obviously has a much easier path to make the case for running in the middle,” said Flaherty.
As a pro-business Democrat, Hickenlooper offers less of a target for Republican attacks than a Romanoff candidacy would have provided. “If he talks about the economy, steal some thunder and run an end around Republicans and the president with ideas of how to get the economy back on track and Coloradans on solid footing,” he added.
Hickenlooper can even focus on the president’s policies, and avoid going after Gardner altogether.
“[A]bsolutely go after the president. Top-to-bottom, soup-to-nuts, it will almost be difficult for his team to decide where to begin because so many people see the president as unable to lead the country and he can easily get specific about that and he can say ‘it’s time for new leadership and I’ll be a reliable vote against Donald Trump’s unprecedented administration.’ If he does those things he will be difficult to beat without even saying anything about Cory Gardner,” Flaherty concluded.
“Cory will have dollar-for-dollar what Hickenlooper has. If that national race tightens—[Democratic presidential candidate Joe] Biden makes mistakes or Trump finds a message that works or there’s another international incident or national incident that improves his position—the entire Republican ticket will improve. The most recent polls in this state have shown that Gardner and Trump are running at the same point behind by 18 points. Unless that tightens, Cory has an uphill battle, even if we know Hickenlooper is not going to surprise anybody by not being good in a debate. He’s terrible,” Ciruli said.
Down the Stretch
Ultimately, voters and political observers should look at campaign metrics in August heading into September as a barometer for Election Day.
“Sixty to 75 days from now, the 30 million unemployed will come down, including in Colorado. More people will feel better. The further we get from the racial injustice and strife, that will allow the discussion to be about the economy and the administration. That’s the macro picture. Jobs and the economy are important. Health and safety are important, not COVID health and safety but [SB]181 and rulemaking kind of stuff [oil and gas]. The number of unaffiliated women that were concerned about that has gone way down,” Flaherty said. Instead, a focus on getting good jobs back and the economy growing has gone back up. But he adds a sense of caution.
“Unemployment rates for younger voters under 40 are very high. They’re the ones who have lost jobs, lost hours, lost income. Those voters are not Republican voters in this state but at the moment at least the larger portion of the electorate feels that can only give Cory a boost or allow him to make his case,” he said.