John Hickenlooper, the two-term former Democratic governor of Colorado, entered a crowded presidential field Monday, casting himself as an experienced executive with a record of progressive achievement who can deliver on his party’s chief objective: defeating President Trump.
“I’m running for president because we need dreamers in Washington, but we also need to get things done,” Hickenlooper said in a video announcing his candidacy. “I’ve proven again and again I can bring people together to produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver.”
The former geologist-turned-brewer brings the Democratic field to roughly a dozen, depending on which long-shot candidates count. He’s the second Western governor to join the scrum in the last four days as the announcement season, dominated early on by senators touting progressive policies, shifts to a new group of pragmatic moderates who emphasize leadership roles outside of Washington.
While Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who announced his campaign on Friday, is focusing on the issue of climate change, Hickenlooper is sidestepping the Democratic litmus tests on Medicare for all or a “Green New Deal” and emphasizing leadership experience and management ability.
“One thing I’ve shown I can do, again and again, is create teams of amazingly talented people and really address these issues that are the critical issues facing this country,” he said in an interview Monday on “Good Morning America.”
He enters the race with relatively low name recognition compared with potential rivals including Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden — and, unlike former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Bernie Sanders, hasn’t much of a national fundraising list to draw on. But Hickenlooper, 67, is betting that his biography-driven campaign and carefully cultivated brand of progressive pragmatism will help him rise in a wide-open primary field.
“There is a lane for a non-establishment candidate from outside of Washington,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton administration and on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “Governors do have those traditional advantages of having been executives, and he’s a very likable person in the conventional sense — people like spending time with him.
“But to really fill that lane, you’re going to have to have a transcendent idea that underlines that non-establishment message and can line that up with an electability message,” he continued.
Rick Ridder, a longtime Democratic consultant in Denver, put the point more bluntly: “He comes across competent and capable and has a good little story,” Ridder said. “The key for him will be finding an issue that captures people’s attention and allows him to break out, and he doesn’t have that yet.”
Hickenlooper, who left office after eight years in January with a 59% approval rating, has never been confused for a liberal ideologue or policy wonk, and may be outside his comfort zone in a primary contest already concentrated around big progressive proposals. In the video, he emphasizes his ability to lead in a crisis by pointing to his performance as governor following fires, floods and shootings.
Some Colorado Republicans were known to joke during Hickenlooper’s tenure that he was the best governor their party ever had because of his conservative positions on some issues. At the same time, however, progressives in the state cheered him for enacting tougher gun laws, expanding access to healthcare and fighting for LGBTQ rights.
The main complaint from the left over his eight years in office was a perceived closeness with the state’s oil and gas industry — Hickenlooper once drank fracking fluid in a congressional hearing to demonstrate that it’s safe, an element of his biography that might not play well with progressive primary voters.
Born in Pennsylvania and educated at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Hickenlooper wound up in Colorado working as a geologist but was laid off in 1986, long a biographical point of emphasis that’s now a key part of his pitch to blue-collar workers. He decided to open a brewpub in Denver’s Lower Downtown area, a decision that helped to revive a once-dilapidated area and eventually catapulted him into city politics.
An out-of-nowhere mayoral campaign caught fire and led him to a landslide win in 2003. He won reelection four years later, then decided to run for governor in 2010 after the incumbent, Democrat Bill Ritter, opted not to seek a second term. He coasted to victory after the Republican ticket collapsed amid scandal and was reelected in 2014, a tough year for his party.
His unlikely political rise had less to do with specific issues than with personal charisma and a consumer-driven approach ingrained decades ago behind a Denver bar. More naturally at ease when talking about beer than delivering a speech at the state Capitol, he wears his personality quirks proudly.
As governor, he would often appear onstage with bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Brothers during concerts at Red Rocks, the popular outdoor venue near Denver. His campaign has planned a launch rally and concert this week in Denver, featuring Nathaniel Rateliff, a popular Denver-based singer and songwriter.
Hickenlooper is almost certainly the only 2020 contender who once — accidentally — watched a porn film with his mother, a scene he described in his 2016 autobiography, “The Opposite of Woe.”
And his campaigns’ television ads were legendarily unconventional. In 2005 as Denver mayor, he jumped out of an airplane in a suit and tie in an ad to encourage voters to back a pair of ballot measures related to state spending. During his 2010 run for governor, another spot showed Hickenlooper, again in a suit, stepping into a shower to wash off the stench of negative ads.
Hickenlooper then won reelection in spite of some political stumbles, including a reversal of his position on the death penalty, which he’d long supported until being convinced to stay a murderer’s execution, and expressions of ambivalence before he signed controversial gun control measures into law.
In 2013, just months after the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting and the deadly massacre at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., Hickenlooper said he was conflicted about whether the state was going too far in expanding background checks on gun purchases and banning high-capacity magazines. He signed the measures into law, however, and has since celebrated the courage of Democratic lawmakers for passing the legislation despite a major backlash from gun rights groups.
That achievement is likely to figure prominently as part of his pitch to progressive primary voters. So will his decision in 2011 to call a special legislative session in an effort to pass a bill recognizing same-sex civil unions, Colorado’s expansion of Medicaid and its adoption of the country’s toughest rules forcing oil and gas producers to capture harmful methane emissions.
One of three final contenders to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, Hickenlooper spent much of his final two years in the governor’s office quietly preparing for a presidential run. He has sought to raise his national profile with several trips to Washington and New York and more appearances on cable news. Late last year, he hired Anna Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster, and named Brad Komar, who oversaw his 2014 reelection effort, to serve as campaign manager.
In 2017, Hickenlooper joined with Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio in offering a bipartisan proposal for improving the Affordable Care Act. That generated speculation about a possible joint ticket in 2020. If that gambit allowed Hickenlooper a brand-burnishing way into a national conversation, it also helped tee up questions related to political centrism that he now is more than happy to dispel.
Asked about a potential partnership with Kasich last month on his first trip to Iowa, Hickenlooper was ready with a reply:
“We’re not ever going to run together. The guy doesn’t support Planned Parenthood,” he said.