Littwin: Hickenlooper throws departing staff under the bus
Fair and Unbalanced
If you haven’t heard by now about John Hickenlooper’s imploding presidential campaign, the Politico headline pretty much says it all: “Hickenlooper campaign in shambles.”
Politico reported first that Hickenlooper’s senior staff — most of which has already left or is planning to leave — advised him in May to drop out of the race and either run for Senate or do something else.
A source close to the campaign has confirmed to me that the Politico story is accurate. The source also said that Hickenlooper was told by senior staff in May that if he didn’t break out during the June debate that they were all planning to jump ship. And so they have.
Not only did Hick not fare well in the debate, critics said fellow Coloradan and longtime political ally, Michael Bennet, had fared much better, although neither got any bump in the first post-debate polls. In a sampling of Hickenlooper reviews, Politico called Hick “a wet blanket” and conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens said Hick and other moderates on the stage “came across as square dancers at a rave.” In a race where debates will be critical, Hickenlooper is an ineffective debater, and it showed.
Politico also reported that Hickenlooper has raised money from only 13,000 donors. That number also was confirmed to me. That’s even more disastrous than his all-but-invisible polling numbers. It’s even more disastrous than his reported quarterly fundraising total of just over $1 million.
To qualify for the third Democratic debate in September, Hickenlooper would need 130,000 donors. I’d rate his chances of reaching the donor number much the same as pollsters put his polling numbers — somewhere under 1%. To put this in perspective, Andrew Yang’s campaign just announced he has reached 130,000 donors.
Nothing Hick has done has worked, which, as anyone who knows Hickenlooper can tell you, is a very difficult proposition for him to accept. He’s used to winning. And so now, in an interview with MSNBC, Hickenlooper said that maybe he had hired the wrong staff. It looks more to me like the staff may have picked the wrong candidate.
Five staffers have left or are leaving. Despite what Hick implied, apparently four of the staffers are leaving of their own accord. For Brad Komar, the campaign manager, it was more like a mutual decision, which is political talk for being at least semi-fired.
And yet, Hick told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin: “We thought it was time to make a change. You know, these campaigns are long, hard campaigns and you don’t always get it right with the first team.”
If this sounds a lot to you like throwing his staff under the bus, it does to me, too. And it also does to Hick’s staff, some of whom were not at all happy with his analysis. I would put it down as the seen-only-in-private Hickenlooper temper coming to the fore. Hick said during the MSNBC interview that he wasn’t always his own best messenger, which suggests that somebody else should be. That is not how it works.
Hickenlooper has now hired M.E. Smith as campaign manager. She has served as a deputy campaign manager in races for both Hickenlooper and Bennet. The Colorado Democrats I talked to had nothing but praise for her, but campaigns are only as good as their candidate. I reached out to the campaign to ask about the shake-up, but was not able to reach Hickenlooper as this column was being published.
The fact that it’s pretty much over for Hickenlooper would seem to be obvious. But this is the same Hickenlooper who was convinced that he had a real shot at becoming a legitimate contender for the Democratic nomination in the first place.
As I may have pointed out when he entered the race, he has no real base, he has little connection nationally among minority communities, he has a fracking issue with environmentalists and he has few allies in labor. Having been a small-business person is not exactly the message required to win the Democratic nomination. Having been a successful two-term governor should be a better message but, strangely, none of the governors in the race seem to be making much headway.
The way Hickenlooper turned around his long-ago campaign when he was a long-shot candidate for mayor was to employ his quirky and winning personality. He won four races with that combination.
But this stage is, literally, too big. His real shot at quirkiness came and went with the story of taking his mother to see “Deep Throat.” I thought it was a semi-endearing story actually, but most of America just found it weird. They found it weird, too, when Hickenlooper wouldn’t quite admit to being a “capitalist,” as if he had ever questioned that point before.
When he went on his anti-socialism tear, he was booed by California activists — which was either a plan gone bad or just a misreading of the politics. As any insider can tell you, Trump will brand any Democratic nominee as socialist — even Hickenlooper, if he were to somehow make it that far. Republicans called Barack Obama a socialist in 2008 — that is, when he wasn’t being called a Kenyan anti-colonialist.
The only socialist — a democratic socialist — in the field is Bernie Sanders, and when Hickenlooper had his chance during the debate to take on Sanders, he basically wimped out. In his defense, The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote a mostly favorable piece on Hickenlooper’s war on socialism.
I was told by another Hickenlooper insider that Hick’s plan is now to make the argument that with Biden possibly beginning to falter, he could be the candidate best suited to win over the Midwest working-class vote that Trump rode to an Electoral College victory. There are many problems here, though. One is that Pete Buttigieg, who raised $24.8 million from more than 294,000 donors in the last quarter, is from the Midwest. So is Amy Klobuchar. Biden, who has made electability the basis for his campaign, is still leading in the polls. And if Kamala Harris continues to rise in the polls, she will likely have to show distance at some point between her and Elizabeth Warren, which would mean Harris moving at least somewhat toward the center.
It is being reported that Hickenlooper has the money to last only another month on the trail. Obviously he needs to find a way to raise substantially more money. And he needs a major breakthrough in the second round of debates on July 30 and 31. If Hickenlooper’s senior staff didn’t think it was possible, it’s hard to see who would.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.