Last Wednesday, your intrepid blogger traveled to Hanover New Hampshire to hear John Hickenlooper, the former two-term Colorado governor, make his case to be the Democrat’s nominee for the presidency. Hickenlooper is staking his campaign on the belief that as someone with executive experience, he has a record of accomplishments that none of his Democratic rivals – most of whom are legislators – can match. This was a theme he stressed at the first Democratic debate, and one that is a central theme in his snazzy “Standing Tall” campaign video. So far, however, he has struggled to break out of the second tier of candidates and has not even registered support in recent New Hampshire polls. So, I was interested in how he would present himself to a New Hampshire audience, and how they would respond.
I arrived at the Hanover Inn just as Hickenlooper was finishing his opening statement, in which he laid out the case for his candidacy. This was a small event, with perhaps 35 people in the audience, most of them students. The event was hosted by Dartmouth’s College Democrats and was also attended by a high school debate team, part of the Dartmouth Debate Institute. Given the small size of the event, there were a surprising number of media outlets covering it – I counted three or four reporters.
Because of my late arrival, I missed Hickenlooper taking the time to set up chairs at the start of his own campaign event. (Kudos to NBC reporter Nate Reed for the video). It was either a testament to his ethos of public service, or a sign of low expectations for his campaign – or perhaps both that Hickenlooper stood in as part of his own advance team. After his opening statement, he took about 40 minutes worth of questions, many from the debate team. “I was surprised how good they were,” he later acknowledged when asked about the debate team questions. The questions spanned a gamut of issues, from health care to trade to climate policy to gun control. Hickenlooper presented in an affable, low-key demeanor, and never seemed ruffled by any of the questions, even the ones that essentially asked why he was in the race for the presidency. One student asked him why he wasn’t running against Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who is in a tough reelection fight, given the need for Democrats to retake the Senate. Hickenlooper said there are several good Democrats in Colorado who “will beat Gardner like a drum”, and that they didn’t need him. He acknowledged, however, that at “1% in the polls I can’t be too confident I’ll get the [Democratic] nomination.”
Asked how he would reduce gun violence as president, particularly if Republicans held the Senate, he pointed to his role in getting legislation mandating background checks on private and online gun sales, and banning ammunition magazines holding more than 15 rounds, passed in Colorado. He noted that once in place the background checks blocked numerous individuals who otherwise would have been allowed to purchase guns from doing so. Based on that experience, he argued, he learned the power of taking a fact-based argument to an audience, and he promised to go state-to-state showing the impact of background checks on reducing gun violence. He also floated the idea of requiring a gun safety course as a prerequisite for owning a gun, comparing it to taking driver’s education and passing a test before getting a license to drive. “I don’t think that will violate anyone’s second amendment rights,” he said. Passing both pieces of legislation was no small feat in a western state whose residents cherish gun rights. Later, when asked to point to an illustration of his leadership capacity, he returned to this example, noting that when he took office he went to the funerals of 34 individuals killed in gun violence, including 12 killed in the Aurora Theatre shooting.
He also recounted how in 2013 he was faced with devastating floods that destroyed roads and other infrastructure. His transportation officials said repairs would not be complete until after the winter. Hickenlooper says he told them that was unacceptable, and he wanted to get the roads open by Thanksgiving. They “compromised” he said, smiling, on December 1. They reached that target because his transportation officials worked 80-90 hours a week. That is an example of what people can accomplish when they are motivated by strong leadership.
Asked how he would reduce the education achievement gap between high and low-income families, he noted there were many causes, including the need for both parents in lower-income families to work, often multiple jobs. That takes away from their ability to focus on their kids’ education he said. He also emphasized the need to reward good teachers with higher salaries, while acknowledging the opposition of teacher’s unions to merit pay. Hickenlooper also suggested longer school days and more days in session. In summary, he said the key was to identify the “algorithm” that explained why certain schools produced high achieving students and work to replicate those conditions as broadly as possible.
On more than one occasion Hickenlooper touted his record of accomplishments in a “purple” state and argued that showed he could bring the nation together to address controversial issues. An older woman pushed him on that point, asking, “Other than being white, what makes you think you can work across the aisle [with Republicans] more effectively than Obama?” Hickenlooper responded, in his usual even-handed manner, “That’s a loaded question, and I reject the premise.” He then returned to his theme regarding the importance of listening to others, citing his record of accomplishments as evidence that this approach can work.
The final question asked him to talk more about his belief that health care “is a right, not a privilege.” In Colorado, he noted, they achieved near universal health care coverage through the Colorado health care exchange, and they expanded Medicaid coverage. However, “I don’t agree with Medicare for all…. the idea that we will transition to it in four years.” He reminded his listeners that many people negotiated private health care coverage as part of their benefits package, and they shouldn’t be forced to give that up. “My solution is for a public option,” he said.
At this point he took questions from local media. They focused mostly on the horse-race aspect of his candidacy and what he must do to increase his support. As I noted above, he did not register having any support in either of the two most recent New Hampshire polls, and nationally the RCP aggregate poll has him at .4%. Asked by a reporter at the event whether he could dig himself out of such a hole, Hickenlooper responded, “Of course I can!” and proceeded to reiterate his record of accomplishments and note, accurately, that it is still very early in the race.
Hickenlooper is an impressive candidate. Nonetheless, like many of the other second-tier candidates, it is hard to see how he is going to change a media narrative that seems already determined to write him off. The July 30 debate may be his best opportunity to do so. When asked by a journalist what he must do to capture attention in the next debate, Hickenlooper said he would focus on his record. So far, that hasn’t seemed to be enough, particularly when he’s competing for airtime and media attention with 20 other candidates, all struggling to break into the top five.
Part of his difficulty, I think, is he is running as a moderate in a party that has moved left, making it difficult for him to find a natural constituency among Democrats, particular when others, such as Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar, are struggling to reach the same voters. Moreover, the more activist Democrats who endorse and give money are more likely to support candidates further left on the party’s ideological spectrum. For all these reasons, he faces a steep uphill climb to gain traction.
After meeting with the media, his staff made sure there were no more questions, and then realized it was raining outside.
As they went in search of an umbrella, I watched the debate team being interviewed, and then headed out. On the way, I signed the candidate’s register (fundraising emails inevitably to follow!), grabbed a sticker and brochure to add to my collection, and headed home. Next candidate write up: Julian Castro. Keep those comments coming, and be sure to follow my live tweeting later today, beginning at 2 p.m., from the Klobuchar event.