The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Hickenlooper could lose his job in November. Here’s why

Hickenlooper faces an uphill climb to reelection. (Tom Kimmell / For The Washington Post)

If there is a ribbon to cut anywhere in the state of Colorado, whether on a refurbished park or a new bridge or a new school, chances are good that Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) will be there. Democrats and Republicans alike in this swing state say he acts like a mayor as much as a governor, showing up at every opportunity to congratulate a town or city on their latest project. After two terms leading Denver, he knows how to be a mayor.

Hickenlooper has carefully crafted his image as a non-partisan technocrat, above the fray of negativity that permeates politics. In his first campaign, he pledged not to run any negative advertisements — in one of his first paid ads, he told voters those negative spots made him feel dirty, so he took a shower in a business suit.

But amid one of the most bitterly polarized elections in recent memory, Hickenlooper’s allies have watched the governor’s sheen come off. The former mayor who wants everyone to feel good about themselves is having difficulty operating in an atmosphere of partisan venom. And, allies and opponents alike say, a series of missteps and bouts of seeming indecision have sent Hickenlooper’s approval and favorability ratings plummeting, with recent polls showing him neck and neck with his opponent, former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R).

Last week, two new surveys demonstrated the challenge Hickenlooper faces: A Quinnipiac University poll showed Beauprez leading by a shocking 10 points. A Suffolk University poll, conducted for USA Today, showed Hickenlooper leading by a statistically insignificant 43 percent to 41 percent. Almost every political observer, even the most rabidly partisan, dismiss the Quinnipiac survey, but they believe the Suffolk poll showing a virtually tied race.

How did a governor who strove to maintain good relationships across the aisle while presiding over a rebounding economy get in so much trouble?

Colorado political experts, including several close to the governor himself, say the issue has been Hickenlooper’s difficulty showing decisive leadership, especially on a few high-profile issues.

Republicans have been most critical of Hickenlooper’s handling of Nathan Dunlap, a murderer convicted of the shooting deaths of four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in suburban Denver in 1993. Dunlap’s execution has been put on hold several times, both by Hickenlooper and his predecessor, Bill Ritter (D). In 2013, Hickenlooper granted what his office called a “temporary reprieve.”

Hickenlooper initially said he was unlikely to revisit Dunlap’s case before he left office, and that voters ought to decide whether Colorado should still use the death penalty. But in an interview on CNN in August, Hickenlooper hinted he might grant clemency if he loses his re-election bid this fall.

Democrats have fretted that the case presents Republicans with a huge opportunity to portray Hickenlooper as indecisive and weak. Republicans are well aware of the chance before them.

“Beauprez will be able to correctly hit the governor on the fact that he couldn’t make a decision,” said state Rep. Frank McNulty (R), the former speaker of the Colorado state House.

And he has. Beauprez has promised Dunlap would be executed if he is elected. The Republican Governors Association ran an advertisement critical of Hickenlooper’s statements in the CNN interview. “I think that’s the coward’s way out,” the husband of one of Dunlap’s victim tells a reporter in the ad.

Hickenlooper has also refused to make clear his position on the Keystone XL pipeline. Though governors have little say over the project, Republicans have used the issue to drive a wedge between the Denver Democrat and constituents around the state who rely on the booming energy industry. And during a heated debate over gun control legislation, Hickenlooper told a group of sheriffs he had not spoken to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg about new gun measures he would eventually sign, then admitted a few days later that they had.

Hickenlooper has even drawn scorn for the title he chose for his economic plan: TBD.

Lately, Republicans have even tried to turn a major Hickenlooper victory into a weakness. Last month, the governor brokered an agreement between environmental groups and the state energy industry to remove four controversial ballot measures related to oil exploration and fracking from November’s ballot.

Democratic strategists didn’t want to pit the state’s energy industry, the source of a huge portion of state revenue, against the environmentalists who are becoming major players in the party’s donor class. Hickenlooper convinced Rep. Jared Polis (D), the author of two environmental ballot initiatives, and oil and gas industry strategists, who had two initiatives of their own, to drop all four, and to form a panel made up of representatives from both sides to try to fashion a compromise.

But state Republicans have derided what they call the Polis Commission.

“The Polis commission is going to continue its drive toward higher regulations and higher cost,” said Rep. Cory Gardner (R), a supporter of energy exploration in Colorado and a candidate for Senate this year.

Hickenlooper used his first ad this year to restate his opposition to negative advertisements. He has left the attacks to an outside group funded, in part, by the Democratic Governors Association, which has aired ads critical of Beauprez. And his team insists the governor’s leadership is responsible for successes during his administration.

“John Hickenlooper’s style of leadership brings unlikely partners together to find solutions that move Colorado up,” Brad Komar, Hickenlooper’s campaign manager, said in an email. “If the biggest criticism of Washington, DC was that they attempt to bring people together, Congress might actually get something done.”

Komar said the race has tightened after the RGA ran $2 million in negative ads that largely went unanswered. He said Hickenlooper’s lead would rebound in coming weeks, as the campaign begins its own paid advertising blitz. The campaign will point to thousands of jobs created and an unemployment rate that has fallen from 9.1 percent to 5.1 percent since Hickenlooper took office.

But the challenge lies in once again selling the brand that is Hickenlooper himself. In a polarized, hyper-partisan environment, Hickenlooper is hoping that voters still want someone capable, and willing, to reach across the aisle — or at least, that they see those efforts as something more than weak indecision.