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Democrats Divided In Colorado Senate Race

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's a crowded field of Democrats wanting to take on Colorado's incumbent Republican senator, including former Governor John Hickenlooper. He's a moderate with the endorsement of national Democrats. But as Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland reports, his entry is dividing the party.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Hickenlooper was governor for two terms. And before that, he was the mayor of Denver. The former brew pub owner is well-known and generally well-liked by Coloradans. But his seven other Democratic rivals say Washington needs to let Colorado decide who should challenge Republican Senator Cory Gardner. Six of the women in the race wrote a letter asking the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to un-endorse Hickenlooper.

ANGELA WILLIAMS: I consider it kind of status quo of who we send to represent Colorado in Washington.

BIRKELAND: That's Democratic State Senator Angela Williams, who signed the letter. Colorado has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate, and she was frustrated by Hickenlooper's endorsement.

WILLIAMS: We're a very progressive state, and we need to ensure that we have diverse voices there. For those who don't realize it, this country and the voices are changing.

BIRKELAND: The more progressive candidates plan to go after Hickenlooper for his support for the oil and gas industry and for his comments attacking democratic socialism. Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff has been one of Hickenlooper's biggest critics. He says the Senate Campaign Committee threatened to blackball consulting firms if they worked with his campaign.

ANDREW ROMANOFF: They would lose a contract with the Senatorial Campaign Committee or the other tentacles that it controls. We're building a great grassroots team. If that doesn't sit well with some folks in Washington, to heck with it.

BIRKELAND: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was instrumental in convincing Hickenlooper to drop his presidential bid and run for Senate. Senate Democrats think Hickenlooper is far and away the strongest candidate to flip the seat. Gardner is one of only two Republican senators up for re-election in a state President Trump lost. For months, Hickenlooper maintained that he was only interested in the White House, but now says he's committed to the Senate race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: It was really a function of, how do you make a difference, right? And all this time I've been criticizing, not giving credit to the possibility that Washington can change.

BIRKELAND: The argument that Hickenlooper has the best shot has already helped persuade three well-funded challengers to get out of the race. Former State Senator Mike Johnston was the first to step aside.

MIKE JOHNSTON: Because if we were to mess up this race, if we were to have a nasty Democratic primary and we were to wound our nominee enough that they lost to Cory Gardner, we could lose a generation of the Supreme Court over that battle. That's not a risk I was willing to take.

BIRKELAND: Republicans are hoping Democrats stay fractured. Gardner says Hickenlooper being in the race doesn't change his own strategy.

CORY GARDNER: There seems to be a tremendous division on the Democratic side. People are protesting the Democrat Senatorial Committee. People aren't happy with what's happened and the way that the race is unfolding on the left. So 14 months is going to be a challenging time for them to figure this out.

BIRKELAND: With national Democrats showing no signs of turning away from Hickenlooper, the pressure is on the remaining candidates to think about their own strategies and fundraising abilities. Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party says it will continue to remain neutral. For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.