Photo: Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to reporters about the launch of his presidential campaign in downtown Denver. Credit: Scott Franz / Capitol Coverage
Some presidential candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg are seeing their profiles and poll numbers rise after last week’s debates in Miami. But others, including former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, are making headlines for the attention they’re still not getting.
National media outlets are reporting Hickenlooper’s top campaign advisers urged him to drop out of the race. But he’s resisting. And now, at least four of his top staffers are leaving.
“It’s a little bit like putting a restaurant together, sometimes you don’t quite get the right team together at the right time,” Hickenlooper said Tuesday during an interview with MSNBC.
“This is what the winnowing process looks like,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, when asked about the developments in the Hickenlooper campaign.
“There’s rarely just one person who comes and taps on a candidate’s shoulder and says it’s time to leave,” Masket said. “It’s usually a series of signals like, your fundraising is anemic, and your staff starts bleeding off to other campaigns.
Masket said Hickenlooper doesn’t have to drop out, but it’s becoming harder for him to find traction.
“At this point on, fewer people are going to be interested in donating to the Hickenlooper campaign, because they don’t think that money’s going anywhere,” Masket said. “Fewer people will be expressing real interest in him as a presidential candidate, because they think the campaign is on its last legs. Once the perception is out there the campaign is winding down, it’s hard to convince people otherwise.”
But political revivals are not unheard of. Before John McCain won the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, his campaign went through a similar staff shakeup. So, could Hickenlooper become the next comeback kid?
Masket said Hickenlooper has a steeper hill to climb.
“A big difference between McCain’s situation back then and Hickenlooper’s now is McCain already had quite a bit of party support at that point,” Masket said. “He had a number of people had endorsed him, and felt he would be a good representative of the party’s interest, and they were really ready to go to bat for him.”
“Hickenlooper is not quite in as advantageous of a situation,” Masket continued. “A lot of party support has already gone to a number of other sources.”
But Masket won’t rule out a comeback.
“It’s possible to have a cash infusion or to get some additional campaign staff who can turn it around,” he said. “It’s certainly possible for a campaign to recover at this point. It just simply gets harder.”
And if Hickenlooper doesn’t turn it around, Masket said Sen. Michael Bennet, Colorado’s other candidate in the race, could benefit the most.
“It’s not like (Hickenlooper) would have a lot to dispense to other candidates, but he’s been positioning himself as one of the more conservative candidates through his critiques of Democratic socialism, so it would help Bennet somewhat as one of the Coloradans in the race,” he said. “It might also help either Biden or one of the other more conservative candidates in this field.”
There’s also the question of whether Hickenlooper will challenge Republican Cory Gardner for the U.S. Senate seat. More than 10 people have already filed for the Democratic primary.
“If Hick had indicated last year he wanted to run for that senate seat, I really think there would have been a path cleared for him, but now that there’s all these candidates it would be a much tougher haul for him to do it if he wanted to,” Masket said.
Meanwhile, Hickenlooper is pushing on with his dream to reach the White House. He’s adding public events in Iowa this weekend. And he’s portraying confidence during his public appearances, including the recent interview with MSNBC.
“You just don’t quit, ya know,” he said. “My mom was widowed twice before she was 40 years old, and she told us you can’t control what life throws at you but you can control how you respond. And her big push was you don’t quit, you just try other things until you make things work.”
Hickenlooper will have to dramatically increase his fundraising totals and start polling above 2% to qualify for the debates this fall.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Eleven public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.