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The Democratic Field Shrinks as Hickenlooper Heads Back to Colorado

Hickenlooper billed himself as a moderate Democrat and a pragmatic alternative to progressive candidates.

Former governor of Colorado and Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper speaks during a forum on gun safety at the Iowa Events Center, on August 10, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the end of his presidential run Thursday, becoming the second major candidate to drop out of the still-massive Democratic primary field.

Once discussed as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Hickenlooper failed to gain traction in the crowded Democratic primary field. Through the end of the second quarter, he raised just $3.1 million, and he had less than $900,000 cash on hand to keep his campaign going. He never polled higher than 2 percent, and he had little chance of qualifying for the Democratic National Committee’s presidential debate in September.

The former governor will decide in the coming months whether he plans to join a crowded Democratic primary to challenge to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is up for reelection in 2020.

Since announcing his presidential run in March, Hickenlooper billed himself as a moderate Democrat and a pragmatic alternative to progressive candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The former mayor of Denver chided Medicare for All as an ineffective way to achieve universal healthcare and championed his track record of getting things done as governor of a purple state.

But his message rarely seemed to resonate with Democratic primary voters. Hickenlooper drew small crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire and was booed at the California Democratic convention for saying “socialism is not the answer.”

His flailing campaign might have come as a surprise to the popular two-term governor of Colorado, who left office in January with a net approval rating of +19.

Hickenlooper worked with a divided state legislature for six of his eight years as governor. A former geologist and brewery owner, he oversaw the state’s marijuana legalization despite his personal opposition to the initiative. After a 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora that killed 12 people, he signed legislation requiring background checks for all private gun purchases and limiting the sale of high-capacity magazines.

But the moderate pragmatism — and lack of verbal filter — that made Hickenlooper a successful politician in his home state never seemed to translate to the national stage. As one of three governors in the race, one of two Coloradoans and one of 14 white men, he never found a way to stand out.

Hickenlooper declined to say Thursday whether he intends to pursue a Senate run. Gardner is considered among the most vulnerable incumbents in 2020, with just a 40 percent approval rating in his increasingly blue home state, according to the Denver Post. The senator is the only Republican statewide elected official in Colorado.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has reportedly been recruiting Hickenlooper to challenge Gardner. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Hickenlooper also discussed a potential Senate run with fellow presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). And the Democratic advocacy group 314 Action launched a six-figure ad campaign earlier this week asking Hickenlooper to drop out of the presidential race and run for Senate instead.

A poll of Colorado voters in early August had Hickenlooper 13 points ahead of Gardner in a hypothetical matchup.

If Hickenlooper chooses to run for Senate, the tougher race might be the Democratic primary. Roughly a dozen Democrats have jumped into the primary to take on Gardner, led by former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who raised $3.4 million through the second quarter of 2019.

While Hickenlooper polls well ahead of Johnston and the other Democratic contenders, he would have significant ground to make up financially. He is allowed to transfer money left from his presidential campaign to a Senate bid, though his campaign has been low on funds over the past few months. The primary does not take place until next June.

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