Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper formally enters the 2020 Democratic presidential race Monday. It’s a pretty crowded field, and he’s going up against some strong candidates with substantial financial reserves and high name recognition in early contest states. What does he bring to the table?
One notable feature of the current top tier of Democratic presidential candidates is that it’s very Congress-heavy. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders are all in the Senate. Julián Castro is a House member. Joe Biden was a multi-decade senator. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s entry last week changed the field somewhat, but it’s still possible for a governor to stand out in this crowd.
Governors often have certain advantages when they seek the presidency, in that their job is more like the presidency than any other in the country. They can point to records of leadership, of negotiating with legislators, of balancing budgets, and so forth, that make them sound prepared for the presidency. And unlike members of Congress, they haven’t cast hundreds or thousands of roll call votes that can be caricatured to make them sound like an extremist or a flip-flopper.
These advantages work particularly well for Hickenlooper. During most of his tenure as governor, he worked with one chamber controlled by Democrats and the other by Republicans. He earned a reputation of bipartisan accomplishment, particularly in 2017 and 2018 when the state government proved highly productive despite being strongly polarized. Hickenlooper himself has sought to avoid many partisan fights and to eschew negative advertising in campaigns.
In many ways, his presidential bid is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s in 1999-2000. Bush, in his second term as Texas’s governor working with a split-party legislature, had also developed a reputation as a pragmatic, non-ideological executive, making friends on both sides of the aisle. He could point to his work on Republican issues, such as tort reform and faith-based welfare programs, as well as Democratic issues, such as boosts in education funding and standards and support for renewable energy. He ran for president on this image, saying he wanted to be a “uniter, not a divider.”
Now, of course, one big lesson from this is that how someone governs a state is not always a great indicator of how they’ll govern a nation. The party system can be much more deeply entrenched in Washington. And as president, Bush mostly had a Republican Congress to work with and didn’t need to seek compromises with Democrats to get things done. Beyond that, his approval ratings following the 9/11 attacks gave him a great deal of leeway to do what he wanted, and that didn’t include many Democratic priorities.
There are important differences, of course, between Bush’s presidential bid and Hickenlooper’s. For one thing, Bush entered the race with enormous institutional advantages — nearly every sitting Republican governor endorsed him in 1999. He emerged as the party’s favorite long before anyone started voting. Hickenlooper has nowhere near that kind of support right now, although there’s a decent amount of interest in his candidacy given how little-known he is outside Colorado.
What could potentially hurt Hickenlooper in the primaries is the same thing that might help him as a general election candidate — his moderation. Hickenlooper was able to gain bipartisan support, both as Denver’s mayor and as Colorado’s governor, in part because of his support from the business community. In particular, he has long been friendly with the oil and gas industry. He first came to Colorado as a geologist with Buckhorn Petroleum, later becoming a brewer and prominent restaurateur. He even drank fracking fluid to demonstrate how safe it was.
It seems reasonable to suggest that a moderate older white man with ties to the oil and gas industry just might not be what the Democratic Party is looking for right now. At the same time, it’s not impossible to see Hickenlooper emerging as a viable candidate. The top tier of candidates will spend the rest of this year trying to knock each other down and out-progressive each other. Hickenlooper could emerge as one of the last people standing.
It will be interesting to watch how he introduces himself to the field this week. He has some legitimate liberal credentials — just how many other candidates can boast of signing gun control bills into law? — but running as a more moderate governor and playing up his perceived electability may be the way to distinguish himself in this crowded field.