Centrist's Dead-End: Hickenlooper Quits White House Bid
John Hickenlooper never really looked like a presidential contender, at least not a contender for 2020.
“Are you here to pick up press credentials?” a security guard asked him earlier this summer.
“I’m a candidate,” he replied.
It was a case of mistaken identity outside the first primary debate, and while the former Colorado governor made it on stage that night in Miami and again a month later in Detroit, the awkward exchange encapsulates the fate of a presidential candidate who tried, and failed, to run as a moderate in a field shifting ever leftward.
“Today, I’m ending my campaign for president,” Hickenlooper said Thursday in a video posted on Twitter. “But I will never stop believing that America can only move forward when we work together.”
Sitting on a picturesque front porch in khakis and a blue collared shirt, sans tie and his sleeves carefully rolled up, Hickenlooper still looked very much like a politician. He certainly hopes Colorado sees him that way. Now out of the contest for the White House, he may hop into a race for the Senate.
“I’ve heard from so many Coloradans who want me to run for the United States Senate,” he continued. “They remind me how much is at stake for our country. And our state. I intend to give that some serious thought.”
While Hickenlooper thinks on his future, analysts, operatives and voters will reflect on his time in the national spotlight. He fought for air and never got much of it.
He warned that Democrats would lose if they embraced socialism, and he was booed when he raised that alarm at the California Democratic Convention. Asked about it again by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, Hickenlooper embraced a centrism that, by comparison to his fellow candidates, made him a radical on the Detroit debate stage.
“I think that the bottom line is if we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists,” Hickenlooper said.
“And if you look at the Green New Deal, which I admire the sense of urgency and how important it is to do climate change — I’m a scientist — but we can’t promise every American a government job,” he continued.
Arguing for moderation while dismissing the GND and Medicare for All, Hickenlooper missed his moment — quite literally. He spoke for just five minutes in that debate, less than half of the time allotted to front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Airtime wasn’t his only problem. With low name recognition nationally, Hickenlooper struggled to sustain his national campaign, bringing in less money than even self-help guru Marianne Williamson.
“Certainly, fundraising has been tough, tougher than we thought,” Hickenlooper told reporters in Iowa in July. He said his campaign “had to go call by call and event by event.”
Going hat-in-hand to stump speeches and chicken dinners is a bad look for any candidate, and it was expected that Hickenlooper would miss the 130,000-donor threshold needed to qualify for the third debate in September.
And worst of all for an aspiring president, the onetime governor and Denver mayor was dogged by an awkward question from reporters and Democratic brass: Wouldn’t you much rather drop out and just run for Senate instead?
Hickenlooper may answer in the affirmative, something that would ease the minds of national Democrats who see capturing another Colorado Senate seat as key to recapturing control of the upper chamber. Polling shows him ahead of Republican incumbent Cory Gardner and well ahead of the rest of the primary field there. But if Hickenlooper expects a warm homecoming, he may be mistaken.
Andrew Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, has been building a Senate campaign as rumors circulated of Hickenlooper’s imminent exit from the presidential race. He told a local radio show Thursday morning that he has no plans to make room for the failed candidate.
“Well, what I heard Hickenlooper tell everybody who asked is that he wasn’t cut out for the [Senate] job and didn’t want the job,” Romanoff said. “And look, I respect that.”
With his withdrawal, Hickenlooper has made some room in the centrist lane for a few fellow presidential candidates, including Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney. Whether they can capitalize on that opening or whether there is much of an appetite at all for moderation in the party primary, remains to be seen.
Defending capitalism and condemning socialism certainly made Hickenlooper look out of place.