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How much trouble is John Hickenlooper in for an ethics violation and his ‘ancient slave ship’ comment?

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper is running for the Senate but recently got national attention for an ethics violation and an insensitive comment. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Democrats’ best pickup opportunity in their battle for the majority in the U.S. Senate has suddenly been complicated by not one but two unforced errors from their star candidate in Colorado, former governor John Hickenlooper. But it’s not clear whether either or both are enough to turn the tide of the race in favor of Republicans. The two controversies:

  1. An independent ethics commission in Colorado said Hickenlooper violated state law on gifts when he was governor in 2018 by accepting rides on a private jet and, separately, in a Maserati limousine.
  2. He appeared to compare a job as a political scheduler to the slave trade, in 2014 comments that were unearthed Monday. His campaign immediately apologized for them. “Imagine an ancient slave ship,” he said, “with the guy with the whip, and you’re rowing. We elected officials are the ones that are rowing.”

The first controversy carries a more immediate impact for Hickenlooper. The commission, which was set up as part of an anti-graft law Colorado voters approved more than a decade ago, fined him almost $3,000 for the luxury rides as he was traveling as governor. The commission also held him in contempt for not showing up for the first day of video hearings even though he was subpoenaed.

Hickenlooper has said he “takes responsibility” for the violations and pointed out that the allegations of wrongdoing were filed by a conservative organization. Hickenlooper’s supporters also say that the organization filed 97 claims, and 95 were dismissed. But an independent commission still agreed he violated two of the ethics rules while governor.

Hickenlooper is a strong candidate precisely because he was governor for two terms. National Democrats cite limited polling that shows him winning the Senate race by a wide margin, thanks to his strong name identification. Colorado Democrats also say that Hickenlooper has decent favorability ratings among the state’s voters, including the all-important large chunk of unaffiliated voters. Democrats The Fix spoke to don’t like that this is all happening for their star candidate, of course, but they also don’t seem worried it will sink his candidacy.

Hickenlooper’s second unforced error — comparing a modern-day political job to slavery — is undoubtedly insensitive anytime. But that it surfaced on social media at a moment when racial justice is dominating American conversations probably made it reverberate more.

Really, any negative headline risks marking what has been relatively smooth sailing to winning both the nomination — Hickenlooper has a primary challenger later in the month — and potentially the Senate seat. After his short-lived Democratic presidential campaign, Hickenlooper decided to run for Senate, which is exactly what national Democrats wanted.

The Colorado race is crucial to Democrats’ chances to retake control of the Senate next year. They need to pick up about four seats to win back the majority. Cory Gardner is one of just two Senate Republicans running for reelection in November in states that voted for Hillary Clinton over President Trump in 2016. As I wrote in an analysis on the top 10 Senate races most likely to flip in November:

Colorado is rapidly trending left as Democrats hold the governor’s office and boost their voter registration thanks to younger voters moving to the state. Another bad sign for Gardner is that Hickenlooper outraised Gardner in the first three months of 2020. Gardner has hitched himself to Trump, refusing to criticize the president or say much of anything during the impeachment trial. Will keeping his base intact be enough for him in a state that voted for Clinton?

Hickenlooper’s most immediate contest is a June 30 primary. He’s facing Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker, who has his supporters but is not seen as a major threat to Hickenlooper. Romanoff is campaigning on Hickenlooper’s left in support of Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal and has the support of some younger, liberal activists. (But no endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or his liberal allies in Congress.)

That may still be the case, given how late Hickenlooper’s ethics violation is coming in the primary and how much Hickenlooper has been billed as the best candidate to beat Gardner among Democrats. Romanoff is trying to leverage Hickenlooper’s ethics troubles to reverse that narrative. “He represents a threat we cannot afford,” Romanoff told The Washington Post recently.

If we step back even further, it’s fair to ask whether an ethics violation and a racially insensitive comment are piercing through while massive national issues — the pandemic, the economy and protests about police brutality — are dominating the country and its politics.

Senate races are particularly likely to become nationalized, especially under Trump, who likes these down-ballot races to be about him. Democrats are also trying to make the presidential election and the House and Senate races referendums on Trump, believing he’s weakened by his response to the novel coronavirus and racially driven protests.

That strong driver of partisanship could protect Hickenlooper from any perceived weakness or controversy if he wins the nomination. Democratic voters seem particularly motivated to get Trump out of office, and political science tells us those voters are much more likely to vote Democratic for other big races on the ballot, too. The percentage of people who might be willing to vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for senator is small. (Though if it could happen in one state, Colorado would probably be it. Unaffiliated voters almost match registered Democrats or Republicans there.)

The political dynamics in Colorado, like in many of the nation’s crucial battlegrounds, favor Democrats. If Republicans are to overcome that to hang on to this Senate seat, they probably need a scandal on Hickenlooper’s part to do it. The question is whether these two recent controversies are enough.