Centrism Hurting Once-Popular Gov. Hickenlooper's Re-Election Hopes

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's decisions that once seemed like triumphs or smart compromises have turned off many voters.
by | October 13, 2014
Hickenlooper had some of the highest approval ratings of any governor earlier in his term but is now caught in a tight race against former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez. David Kidd

Sometimes being a centrist means pleasing no one. That appears to be Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's problem now.

The Democrat had some of the highest approval ratings of any governor earlier in his term but is now caught in a tight race against former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez. Hickenlooper's attempts to address controversial issues from gun control and fracking to the death penalty has reduced his core of support while alienating the red parts of his purple state.

"Hickenlooper has allowed an image to grow around him of someone who doesn't have that boldness, or wants to split the difference," said Eric Sondermann, a longtime Colorado political analyst.

By many measures, Hickenlooper has been a success. He erased a big deficit and the state has gone from 40th to 4th in the nation in job creation on his watch. He capably led the state through a series of crises, including wildfires, serious floods and the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora.

He's also signed off on a slew of landmark bills. But that's where his troubles began. During his first two years in office, Republicans held a slight majority in the state House, which forced bipartisan compromise. In 2012, Democrats took control of everything and forced through a lengthy and ambitious list of bills.

"When the Democrats took the majority in the House, that's what caused him problems," said Frank McNulty, who had been the GOP Speaker. "The worst-case scenario for a governor who is trying to maintain this moderate appeal is to have both chambers controlled by his party."

Democrats decided to go big and Hickenlooper ended up signing more than 400 bills last year. Environmental laws alienated rural areas, leading some counties to hold symbolic secession votes. Gun-control legislation that passed in Aurora's wake triggered a pair of recalls of state senators and the resignation of another who likely would have been recalled.

In all, the amount and pace of change might have been too much, Hickenlooper conceded in an interview with Governing this year. "Doing so much so fast in one year was a big bite to take," he said.

Rather than being a hero to the left, however, Hickenlooper managed to anger many supporters by brokering a deal to allow hydraulic fracturing in the state, heading off a move to curb fracking on the November ballot. That one decision was enough to cost the governor a fair amount of support in the key party precincts around Denver and Boulder. "It had the effect of distancing him from a big chunk of the Democratic Party in Colorado," said University of Colorado political scientist Kenneth Bickers.

Hickenlooper may not be able excite his party's base in the way a more openly partisan figure could. "As a centrist, he doesn't inspire any passion within the base of the party," said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster. "African Americans, Hispanics, young people and labor unions may vote for him, but he's not their champion."

That hasn't inoculated him from getting pummeled by Republicans for trying to be all things to all people. He's been an able crisis manager, but the GOP says he's tried to slice his positions too fine. Their primary piece of evidence is the case of convicted killer Nathan Dunlap. Rather than either allow his execution to proceed or commute his sentence, Hickenlooper offered a reprieve that leaves the final call up to the next administration.

That decision, along with a meeting with sheriffs that went viral after Hickenlooper sought to distance himself politically from the gun-control measures he'd signed, has allowed the GOP to paint him as indecisive. "That sheriffs' appearance was disastrous for him," said Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado GOP chair. "People were reminded of his weak, indecisive manner."

The end result of all this is that Hickenlooper is tied in the polls with Beauprez, who served two terms in the House before losing the gubernatorial contest in 2006 by a whopping 17 points.

Beauprez is widely credited with running a smarter campaign this time around, avoiding mistakes and promising to bring the Colorado tax code more in line with conservative principles. He's also benefited from the fact that Hickenlooper has honored his old pledge not to run negative advertising, although the Democratic Governors Association has lately attempted to fill that gap.

Beauprez hopes to present himself as the reasonable alternative to people put off by one Hickenlooper policy or another. That's certainly put him in position to win, but in the end it might not be quite enough.

Colorado Democrats, who are also worried about a U.S. Senate seat in play, will do their best to repeat the type of turnout efforts that became a model for President Obama's 2012 campaign. "Democrats over the last decade have demonstrated the ability to win close elections in this state more often than Republicans have," Sondermann said. "The consensus wisdom is that Hick still has some advantages, a bit of residual goodwill."

Hickenlooper could win and go on to have a successful second term. But the clear possibility of his losing shows that in the present political environment, when voters feel alienated from both parties, positioning yourself as the man in the middle isn't necessarily a winning strategy.