A few days after the 2010 U.S. Senate Primary Election, in which Sen. Michael Bennet defeated challenger Andrew Romanoff by 8 points, we took a long look at how and why Bennet emerged victorious despite not being particularly well-known among Colorado Democrats. Most of what we wrote on August 13, 2010 holds up remarkably well in comparison to the 2020 Democratic Senate Primary race between Romanoff and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, which Hickenlooper won by about 18 points.
Ten years ago, we cited four main reasons as to why Bennet beat Romanoff: 1) Ballot chasing, 2) Messaging, 3) Romanoff getting mired in details, and 4) Fundraising. The 2020 election is not an apples-to-apples comparison, of course, but the point here is that Romanoff made many of the same mistakes he made in 2010. Ballot chasing was less relevant in 2020 because of campaigning restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that Colorado is now an all-mail ballot state. The other three points are all pretty similar when you look at the two Senate Primary races. With that in mind, we’ll drop the first item from 2010 and add a different explanation:
#1: Name ID
Any analysis of the 2020 Democratic Senate Primary must start with one fundamental truth: Voters and donors knew Hickenlooper, but not Romanoff. As a popular former two-term governor, Hickenlooper started this race last fall with very strong name ID. When Hickenlooper first entered the Senate race in late August, he was polling at about 61% support among likely Primary voters; last week, Hick won the Primary with 59% of the vote. Any political observer who is being honest about any race will always concede that the better-known candidate has a big advantage.
Romanoff, on the other hand, hasn’t served in elected office since 2008. While he was a statewide candidate in 2010 and a congressional candidate in 2014, there is an entire generation of new voters in Colorado who are unfamiliar with Romanoff’s political resume. This was a bit different in 2010, because Bennet had just been appointed to the U.S. Senate 18 months earlier.
The disparity in fundraising and campaign spending between the two candidates is largely related to this name ID advantage. Hickenlooper raised substantially more money than Romanoff, which makes plenty of sense given that he spent the last 8 years as Colorado’s Governor before a brief run for President. As we’ve written time and again in this space, donors generally support candidates who they think have the best chance of winning. Hickenlooper was twice elected Denver Mayor before serving two terms as Governor; Romanoff last won an election in 2006. If you don’t think this matters — for both donors and average voters — then you’re just being obstinate.
As of the last available reporting period (June 10), Hickenlooper’s campaign had spent about $6.7 million compared to $2.2 million for Romanoff. Both candidates benefitted from attack ads paid for by outside groups; Republicans alone spent at least $2 million on negative ads critical of Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper had a clear financial advantage over Romanoff, for obvious reasons (as stated above), but the outcome of the 2020 Primary Election was not about money. When you include outside spending, Romanoff’s campaign probably compared more favorably financially to Hickenlooper than it did to Bennet in 2010. Romanoff was outspent by similar margins in 2010 and 2020, but Hickenlooper’s margin of victory was 10 points higher in 2020.
Romanoff had more than enough resources to run a competitive race against Hickenlooper in a year that was much more favorable to Democratic challengers than 2010. Look no further than Kentucky for proof: Democrat Amy McGrath raised more than $40 million ahead of her June 23 Primary against Charles Booker, who collected about $800,000 in total. But McGrath only ended up beating Booker by 3 points. Romanoff definitely did not have the same resources as Hickenlooper, but that’s not why he was blown out last Tuesday.
This was the real difference in the 2020 Democratic Senate Primary, just as it was in 2010. Take a look at this paragraph from our 2010 analysis — you could apply it almost verbatim to this year’s Primary race:
It’s a fundamental rule of politics that in any campaign against an incumbent, you must both “make the case to fire” and “make the case to hire.” Romanoff never really completed either argument; he came the closest to making the “case to fire” argument, but he certainly never fully made the case why he was a better choice than Bennet. It was a recurring question that came up time and time again in the race, a question which Romanoff never had a good answer for: “What would you do differently?”
Romanoff spent a LOT of time talking about Hickenlooper and why he was a bad choice for the Democratic Senate nomination. He spent much less time talking about why HE was the better option. We were apoplectic when Romanoff went up with a negative ad with 10 days left in the race — not because we disagree with negative ads, but because that lane was already being filled by millions of dollars in Republican attacks against Hickenlooper. It was the same strategic blunder that Romanoff made in 2010.
Ten years ago, Romanoff went negative against Bennet with a complicated attack about how Bennet manipulated financial derivatives and cost Denver Public Schools millions of dollars…or something. It was hard to follow, and voters didn’t. In 2020, Romanoff’s television ads focused mostly on ethics allegations against Hickenlooper that just didn’t resonate with voters. It’s hard to effectively accuse a politician of ethics violations when we’re living under the most corrupt and unethical President in American history. Again, Romanoff would have been much better off trying to sell himself instead.
Romanoff’s closing ad was a bit better, but it was also very generic. You could change a few words and names in the ad below and apply it to pretty much any 2020 candidate. Watch it yourself and then try to sum up what you saw and heard in one sentence:
👁 WATCH OUR NEW AD: What will history say about us—about what we did at this moment? Did we choose hope over fear? Courage over hate? Did we forgo the politics of the past & fulfill the dreams of a new generation?
— Andrew Romanoff (@Romanoff2020) June 23, 2020
#4: Mired in the Wrong Details
Romanoff was re-elected to the State House of Representatives three times between 2001-08, in a solidly-Democratic Denver district where Republican candidates had (and have) no hope of even sniffing a close race. Winning another term in the State House basically just required Romanoff to schmooze Democratic insiders and make sure he continued breathing until Election Day.
To some extent, Romanoff’s two statewide races were an extension of his State House campaigns. For example, he and his supporters often crowed about winning 86% of the vote at the state assembly; that looks like an impressive percentage until you remember that fewer than 3,000 people cast a ballot in April and nearly 1 million ballots were cast in the June Primary. Sure, Romanoff needed a victory at the state assembly in order to make it onto the Primary ballot, but otherwise he spent a lot of time and effort courting roughly .003% of the total electorate.
Romanoff also spent a fair amount of time texting individual phone numbers. His campaign claimed that Romanoff himself texted 750,000 people, which he may have been able to do this with the help of an app on his phone, but to what end? The effort itself doesn’t seem to have been particularly useful. Either Romanoff was texting hundreds of thousands of wrong numbers, or the vast majority of recipients ignored the messages as spam.
Retail campaigning obviously became much harder once the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, but Romanoff needed a broader outreach strategy long before then. Romanoff spent hours upon hours traveling around the state attending small house parties and minor candidate forums, which is commendable but not efficient. Romanoff often criticized Hickenlooper for not attending dozens of debates, but did it really make sense for him to drive all day to get to a candidate forum in Ouray that was attended by 14 people? Probably not.
It’s easy to bemoan the Democratic “establishment” and blame Romanoff’s loss on powerful unseen forces that wouldn’t let him win in 2020, but the reality is much less complicated. Romanoff lost the 2020 Democratic Senate nomination for many of the same reasons that he lost in 2010, and when you make the same mistakes…you often get the same results.