DENVER — Once viewed as a can’t-miss candidate, former Gov. John Hickenlooper enters Tuesday’s Senate primary as damaged goods after a series of gaffes and missteps that have forced national Democrats to spend big to prop up his teetering campaign.
Mr. Hickenlooper faced calls over the weekend to drop out of the primary race from activists after photos emerged of him wearing a feathered headdress and “squaw” outfit at the One Shot Antelope Hunt, an annual sporting event in Lander, Wyoming.
“Gov. Hickenlooper displayed an unacceptable lack of judgment in choosing to participate in this event, while disrespecting Indigenous women and appropriating traditional dress of Native peoples,” said a letter posted Saturday calling for him to withdraw.
The Indigenous Environmental Network tweeted that Mr. Hickenlooper is “not fit to lead,” while Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy for Data for Progress, added, “This sort of red face racism has no place in our politics.”
Republicans were quick to pile on. “The recent revelations from Black Lives Matter and indigenous activists of John Hickenlooper’s ‘racist tropes’ and ‘red face’ are proving what he said all along: he’s ‘not cut out to be a senator,’” said NRSC spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez.
The Hickenlooper campaign had no public comment Monday, but the episode came as another example of how the former two-term governor has been his own worst enemy with politically incorrect comments, outright flubs, and an ill-timed run-in with the state ethics commission.
Mr. Hickenlooper, 68, is still the way to bet — a 9News/Colorado Politics poll released last week had him leading the primary race by 30 points — but Democrats were worried enough to launch ads against former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, the choice of the party’s surging progressive wing.
Let’s Turn Colorado Blue, a super PAC formed two weeks ago, has spent more than $1 million on anti-Romanoff ads, while the Senate Majority PAC is running television spots defending Mr. Hickenlooper over Republican ads highlighting his ethics violations.
In all, Democrat-tied campaign groups have spent $2.9 million supporting Mr. Hickenlooper in the primary, according to OpenSecrets, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, a sizable sum for a candidate who was supposed to coast to victory.
“The one thing that potentially makes this competitive is that the last month has been really tough on Hickenlooper,” said Seth Masket, University of Denver political science professor. “He’s made a number of unforced errors — a relatively minor ethical violation that he managed to make into a multiweek story.”
Still, analysts agree that the race is Mr. Hickenlooper’s to lose, given his near-universal name recognition and support from state and national Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory A. Booker, and former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams.
“A lot of them are jumping in to bail him out,” said Mr. Masket. “I think they’re still seeing him as the best candidate for November, but I’m sure some of them worry that if they have to protect him against a Democrat, how’s he going to do against a skilled Republican in the fall?”
As badly as Republicans want to see Mr. Hickenlooper lose Tuesday’s primary — he’s seen as the toughest competition for GOP Sen. Cory Gardner — progressive and environmental activists may want it even more.
Most of those calling for Mr. Hickenlooper to withdraw last weekend were not indigenous groups but environmental groups, which have long seethed over his support for the oil-and-gas industry and hydraulic fracturing.
Since his stint in the state legislature, Mr. Romanoff, 53, has lost a Senate primary against Sen. Michael Bennet and a congressional race against then-Rep. Mike Coffman, but now has the state’s progressive wing as well as climate groups like the Sunrise Movement in his corner.
Mr. Romanoff has also received plenty of unintended help from Mr. Hickenlooper, whose June swoon began with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission ruling that he had violated state law as governor in 2018 by accepting transportation, lodging and meals in excess of the state limit. He was also held in contempt for defying a subpoena to testify.
Then there was the Black Lives Matter forum at which he said that “every life matters,” which he walked back. A 2014 video surfaced in which he compared being a politician to being on a “slave ship,” for which he apologized. He referred to the “shooting of George Floyd,” who was not shot, but died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Meanwhile, the Gardner campaign is running an ad replaying Mr. Hickenlooper’s past comments on his lack of interest in the Senate, such as, “Being a senator would be meaningful, but I’d hate it,” and “I don’t think I’m cut out for that.”
“This guy has a lot to work through here. He thinks it’s all about him,” says Mr. Gardner, who’s shown in a psychiatrist’s chair listening to the Democrat. “To do this job, you probably need to want this job.”