The tweet seems harmless enough, on the surface. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s account slapped its logo atop a John Hickenlooper for Colorado ad and gave the presidential dropout a big thumbs up.
Hickenlooper, the DSCC wrote, “is running against Cory Gardner — the most vulnerable Republican up in 2020! If we want to end the gridlock, cut the costs of health care and prescription drugs, and act on climate — we need to flip this #COSen seat.”
The Democratic Party endorsing a former Democratic governor in a Senate race may not sound like a headline. Still, it’s one of those “Why do they have to be such dicks?” moves that leads progressives to think the Party is thumbing the scale against them.
If there is such a thing as an anti-climate Democrat, it’s John Hickenlooper, no matter what the DSCC says about voting for him to “act on climate.” West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin may have raised eyebrows by backing Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accords, but Manchin never bragged about drinking a glass of Hallibutron fracking fluid, as Hickenlooper once did. Hickenlooper’s devotional act remains part of the reason he’s known by the nickname “Frackenlooper.”
“You can drink it. We did drink it around the table, almost ritual-like, in a funny way,” Hickenlooper told the Senate back in 2013. Then-Senator Al Franken asked if this were an occult practice. “No, there were no religious overtures,” Hickenlooper deadpanned. (Halliburton’s own website, then and now, warned that its CleanStim fluid “should not be considered edible.”)
As governor, he threatened to sue towns that restricted fracking enterprises, and followed through more than once. He led a fight against a ballot measure allowing communities to restrict fracking development.
Hickenlooper just dropped out of the presidential campaign, after spending about $2.3 million to play human asterisk aside more progressive opponents. Debate moderators were glad he was there to call on when they wanted to accuse other candidates of being too radical. Apart from that, Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign highlight was probably comparing Medicare for All to Stalinism.
The fork in Hickenlooper’s back began to be visible in early June, when he was barely audible through a cacophony of boos at the California Democratic Convention. The crowd howled when he said he opposed the Green New Deal because you can’t defeat climate change by “giving every American a government job.”
Hickenlooper had people booing the words “public option.” It was like watching the Unknown Comic address the Bundestag. There are Democrats who are uninspiring on the stump, but Hickenlooper is one of the party’s few outright gong acts with liberal voters.
Still, why not run for Senate, in a race Democrats desperately need if they want to regain the chamber? One reason might be that as recently as February, Hickenlooper gave a speech in which he said, “I’m not cut out to be a Senator.” Apparently, he has too much of an executive temperament for the job.
Despite this, and despite the fact that Hickenlooper’s in-state approval rating has plunged eight points since his punchline presidential run, the party is backing him against a large field of primary contenders that includes former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Doing so sets up the Colorado Democratic primary to be a flashpoint contest similar to the Connecticut Senate primary of 2006, with Hickenlooper as the V-neck sweatered analog to Joe Lieberman.
Back then, Lieberman’s bomb-happy advocacy for the War on Terror created an open party schism. Antiwar Democrats were forced to challenge Lieberman via the candidacy of Ned Lamont, winning a primary thanks largely to grassroots and Internet advocacy.
The party and much of the national punditocracy responded with horror to Lamont’s 2006 primary win. David Brooks of the New York Times famously said it proved “Polarized primary voters shouldn’t be allowed to define the choices in American politics.”
Though Lieberman ultimately retained his seat by running as an independent, the 2006 Connecticut primary standoff showed support of the Iraq war was no longer a tenable position within the Democratic electorate. This began a change in party consensus on that issue (even if the Democrats remain divided on the issue of military intervention overall).
A similar situation is developing with regard to climate issues. While Green New Deal proposals and urgent climate action are popular with Democratic voters, neither the party itself nor much of the national press seem to have warmed up to the idea. The unspoken logic behind backing Hickenlooper is that name recognition and proven fundraising ability trump all in tossup races.
On the other hand, Colorado is now a solidly a blue state. The incumbent Senator Cory Gardner is its only statewide office-holding Republican. Polls suggest any Colorado Democrat would fare well against Gardner, among the more unpopular Senators. The state just elected a very liberal governor. If ever there were a time to observe the Prime Directive of non-interference, it would be in a Colorado Senate race.
Outright endorsements by the DSCC in primaries are not common, but when they have happened, the beneficiary tends to be the party’s idea of an “electable” moderate. In 2016, the committee backed Katie McGinty over John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. She lost to Republican Patrick Toomey. This year it has backed several “moderates” already, including Nancy Pelosi acolyte Ben Ray Lujan in New Mexico against Maggie Oliver. (Both candidates back the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.)
The endorsement of Hickenlooper would have made sense under back when politicians who took gobs of industry money could believably market themselves as moderates or centrists. Today, voters see corporate donations as competition. They don’t want to share political leaders with oil and gas companies, or health insurance companies, or weapons contractors.
By deciding to publicly back Hickenlooper, who has a history of lavish support from energy companies, the Democratic Party is making a statement about what side of the corporate donation argument it backs. It seems determined to sink or swim with its Hickenloopers and Joe Manchins, continuing to push the unconvincing line that hackery is synonymous with electability.
It took Joe Lieberman taking a primary L for the party to see the light about Iraq. Perhaps Colorado will be the scene for an epiphany on climate change.