Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is taking steps toward a presidential run in 2020, holding meetings with veteran political players, ahead of a visit to Iowa next month for an official trip that is sure to draw attention.
The Democrat’s actions in recent months signal to his closest associates and top party strategists that the former Denver mayor and two-term governor is more serious than ever about mounting a White House bid against President Donald Trump.
“John’s sense of timing in politics is his lucky star. It served him well when he ran for mayor and then governor. It may do the same for a run in 2020,” said Alan Salazar, Hickenlooper’s former chief political strategist.
The behind-the-scenes effort - detailed in records and described in more than a dozen interviews with Democratic insiders and Hickenlooper allies — suggests that Hickenlooper may start to formally explore a presidential run later this year, capitalizing on recent efforts to boost his national profile.
He’s far from the only one.
The list of potential Democratic candidates for president seems to grow by the day, so much so that Hickenlooper - who made Hillary Clinton’s shortlist for vice president in 2016 — may not be the only Democrat from Colorado with eyes on the White House.
For months, Hickenlooper’s interest in a presidential bid has been a constant topic for speculation in Colorado politics. The 66-year-old former brewpub owner led Colorado during a time of economic resurgence in the years following the Great Recession, all while cultivating a reputation as a quirky, guitar-playing politician with a centrist streak.
The first question he fielded at a February event with Colorado municipal leaders involved “his next chapter.”
But like most candidates at this point, he is downplaying the idea by saying he’s focused on his final year in office.
“The minute I start talking about what am I going to do … when I’m out of office, not only do I get distracted, but everyone who works for me gets distracted,” Hickenlooper replied, but later allowed: “I won’t say me and my wife won’t discuss it.”
Hickenlooper acknowledges interest in White House bid
More recently, in a national TV interview, he acknowledged a 2020 presidential bid is a “maybe.”
"I've seen some signs that he has real interest in it," said a prominent Democratic political consultant in Washington, who is familiar with Colorado.
The chatter about his intentions is sure to increase next month when he attends an April 3 event in Iowa, an early presidential bellwether, with the state’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to discuss the importance of transforming education to fit a shifting workforce and economy.
In an interview, Hickenlooper said the event is not political in nature and that he initially declined Reynolds’ invitation, keenly aware of how it would be perceived. “I am going to go give a speech in Iowa, but it’s not to the Democrats,” he said. “It’s to essentially a convention.”
Michael Gronstal, a former majority leader of the Iowa state Senate, said that if Hickenlooper does have presidential ambitions, than coming to his state is a smart move.
“If those are his intentions - and I have no idea if they are — but if those are his intentions, then it is important he comes to Iowa,” said Gronstal, a Democrat.
Hickenlooper steps onto the national stage
Hickenlooper started to more aggressively court top political minds in late 2017, holding private meetings with key Democratic allies across the country — none of which were disclosed on his public calendar but revealed in a series of records requests.
In a November trip to New York for the NationSwell Summit of “movers and shakers,” he scheduled a side meeting with Forward Majority, a Democratic super PAC, which is run by a former Obama campaign operative and focuses on winning state legislative races. Hickenlooper recently became an honorary co-chairman of the group.
In Washington a week later, Hickenlooper met with the president of the Service Employees International Union, which boasts 2 million members and backs Democratic candidates, and John Stocks, the executive director of the National Education Association and board chairman of the Democracy Alliance, the nation's largest network of progressive political donors. The Capitol Hill meeting with Stocks took place in U.S. House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer’s conference room.
Both meetings, the governor’s office said, involved state business and were the latest in a long-running conversation. A Hickenlooper aide said the governor has met 10 times with SEIU officials over the last three years and at least twice with NEA representatives in that same time.
Hickenlooper also took an undisclosed trip to Paris for a major climate-change summit in December, rubbing shoulders in elite circles and bolstering his international credentials, as he sat next to billionaire Richard Branson and met with French President Emmanuel Macron.
— John Frank (@ByJohnFrank) March 12, 2018
More recently, Hickenlooper flew to a philanthropy event associated with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in January and on the side met for lunch with Vernon Jordan, a longtime adviser to former President Bill Clinton.
“He was very gracious and asked me about 2020, and I said, ‘Well, you know, my wife and I hadn’t made up our minds,’” Hickenlooper said about the lunch meeting.
Jordan offered advice on what steps Hickenlooper should take next, including suggestions on whom else to talk to.
“So he was helpful, (but) I don’t think he was any more helpful to me than he was to other people," Hickenlooper said.
In addition, Hickenlooper is working to set a meeting with former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “He’s got a broad arc of experience and is somebody that is probably useful for me to talk to,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper and Kasich meet privately
Some of Hickenlooper’s closest allies suggest he could still team with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, as part of a political unity ticket. Hickenlooper and his wife, Robin, traveled to Columbus in November for a private dinner with Kasich and his wife, Karen.
— John Frank (@ByJohnFrank) August 31, 2017
Hickenlooper would not say whether they discussed 2020 politics, but both men repeatedly have dismissed the idea of running together. The two governors - and others — continue to push bipartisan policy proposals on health care, immigration and the children’s health insurance program, all efforts that bolster their national image.
Back in Colorado, Hickenlooper is talking more often about national issues, too. He pivots comments about a federal infrastructure spending plan into his concerns about the size of the national debt. And he’s become a vocal on the new Republican tax law.
His interest in the White House is not unnoticed by top political strategists.
“John Hickenlooper will go to Iowa, maybe even New Hampshire,” Democratic consultant Steve Welchert told the crowd at a recent political forum at the University of Denver.
Welchert, who grew up in Iowa, added that he gave Hickenlooper advice on where to go in the state.
“The question for Mr. Hickenlooper is what’s the best path” to the White House, he said. “I think he will kick the tires on the national stage.”