By NOLAN D. MCCASKILL
“I’m running for president because we need dreamers in Washington, but we also need to get things done,” Hickenlooper says in a video announcing his candidacy. “I’ve proven again and again I can bring people together to produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver.”
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After a kickoff rally in Denver on Thursday, Hickenlooper’s next stop as a presidential candidate will be a two-day tour through Iowa, an early state that will be pivotal to his fortunes in a crowded Democratic field.
The former Colorado governor begins at a disadvantage there, with low name recognition and a smaller campaign infrastructure than most rivals. While his name is a familiar one to older Iowa voters — a cousin, the late Bourke Hickenlooper, served as a Republican governor in the 1940s and later represented the state in the Senate for 24 years — John Hickenlooper was excluded from the latest poll.
During a recent appearance at the Story County Democratic Party’s annual soup supper in Ames, the former Colorado governor was the only presidential candidate who wore a name tag. California Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who also attended the supper, didn’t feel the need.
Iowa Democrats say there’s precedent for a candidate like Hickenlooper to do well in the caucuses — only it was nearly a half-century ago, when then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was largely unknown before he finished ahead of the four other candidates here in 1976.
“It’s a place where people who may not be walking in with the most name ID or the most money can still do quite well,” said Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “It’s not just name ID. It’s not just money. It’s who’s gonna go out there, make those connections and build those relationships.”
Penny Rosfjord, a former chair of the Woodbury County Democrats who attended a recent meet-and-greet with Hickenlooper in Sioux City, said after hearing Hickenlooper speak, he might qualify as such a candidate.
“I do think that everybody really has a shot at this,” she said, pointing to Carter’s surprise finish as proof. “Who’d have thought he would have won? By all accounts, he shouldn’t have, you know. I think that you can’t discount anyone. Yeah, name ID is a big thing, but if you can connect with the people, I think that’s a major part.”
Hickenlooper’s announcement comes on the heels of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who launched his campaign on Friday.
In a Democratic field featuring numerous legislators, Hickenlooper will attempt to distinguish himself by pointing to his executive accomplishments over two terms as Colorado governor and two terms as mayor of the state’s largest city. His electability is also a selling point: Hickenlooper became the first Denver mayor elected to the governorship in 120 years, and he did it in a 2010 election cycle that proved devastating for Democrats across the country.
He was also one of just two Democrats to win gubernatorial elections in swing states in 2014, another tough year for Democratic candidates.
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Hickenlooper’s pitch, which often comes in small venues — during his last swing through Iowa he hosted meet-and-greets with roughly 20 voters inside a coffee shop and a table of 10 at his next stop inside a bar — is that he is the only “doer” in a field of talkers.
“What I’m trying to do is run as the person who gets stuff done,” he told a handful of reporters last week inside a bar in Carroll, where he briefly engaged with the media before heading to his third and final stop of the day after campaigning in western Iowa. “There’s not a lot of people that bring people together.”
A former geologist who once spent two years out of work, Hickenlooper became an entrepreneur, launching a successful brewpub in Denver in 1988. He opened two more brewpubs in Colorado and a dozen more across the Midwest, including in Des Moines.
“They may be debaters or dreamers, and we need that,” he added of other candidates. “We need debaters. We need to debate policy and dreams to create new policy. But I’m a doer, and I think in a funny way I’m the one person that can say I have again and again and again brought people together.”
Hickenlooper tells voters that he brought the oil and gas industry and environmentalists together to create methane regulations in Colorado and that he got Republicans and Democrats to work together to expand Medicaid in a state that’s nearing 95 percent coverage.
Part of his strategy will be campaigning in western Iowa, the most conservative part of the state.
“That goes to the type of voters he feels he can speak to,” said Lauren Hitt, a Hickenlooper spokeswoman. “He’s never had the luxury of just talking to people who already agree with him. He’s always had to go talk to people who may be skeptical or may be independents or may be looking for something different.”
Hickenlooper’s advisers see parallels between Iowa and Colorado, two states with a near even divide of one-third Republicans, Democrats and independents. Colorado was also a caucus state in presidential years until 2016.
While his campaign insists it won’t attempt to bypass New Hampshire and South Carolina — there are plans to hire teams in both early states — Hickenlooper’s Iowa focus is apparent from his already announced there: Sam Roecker and Ferguson Yacshyn, who were originally hired by Hickenlooper’s GiddyUp PAC, are transitioning into campaign roles as Iowa state director and caucus director, respectively.
Roecker, who formerly ran former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge’s Senate campaign and worked on Christie Vilsack’s race against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), said he was drawn by the campaign’s commitment to Iowa. He believes Iowa Democrats are looking for a candidate who can oust President Donald Trump in the general election — and authenticity is an essential trait.
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“It’s been several years since we’ve had a caucus cycle where you’ve got a really big field where you have candidates who have to really pay attention to retail politics,” he said. “And I think the governor is somebody who can really do that well. He comes off as very personable, very authentic and very willing to have these conversations that you have to do if you’re serious about running in the caucuses.”