Since last Tuesday's mid-term elections, there's been a tendency by many to focus on what particular Democrats did wrong. Did Udall focus too much on reproductive issues? Did Grimes make too many gaffes? Was Crist overly obsessed with his skin temperature? It's not clear how useful these sorts of analyses are, however, since Democrats across the country took pretty similar beatings. The question is not what most Democrats did wrong, but rather what those few Democrats who survived did right. How did a few manage to survive the wave that drowned so many of their colleagues?
One particularly interesting example is Colorado's Governor John Hickenlooper, one of the only purple state Democratic governors to win re-election last week. In fact, Colorado was the most conservative state to elect a Democratic governor this year. Hickenlooper survived even while Democrats like Mark Udall and Andrew Romanoff fell and the party lost control of the state senate and most state constitutional offices. How did he pull this off?
Here are a few tips we might glean from Hickenlooper's campaign:
DEVELOP YOUR OWN IDENTITY
Hickenlooper has a biography that is fairly typical for a Colorado entrepreneur but not for a career Democratic politician. He first came to the state as a geologist for a petroleum company, and then founded a brewpub. He developed a public image as a prominent restauranteur and then in 2003 got elected mayor of Denver, a non-partisan position. Hickenlooper presided over Denver during many boom years as its population grew and its downtown thrived. His business-friendly, informal style of leadership and record of accomplishments earned him extremely high approval ratings as mayor. He also had the good fortune to never draw particularly strong political challengers. All this meant that he had a winning record and never owed anything to the Democratic party.
Hickenlooper has continued to cultivate a public identity somewhat distinct from the state Democratic party. He even held his own victory party, several blocks from where other state Democrats were drowning their sorrows last Tuesday night.
He additionally had the wisdom or luck to run for governor in 2010 at a time when the state Republican Party was self-destructing. A Tea Party insurgent won the nomination for governor, and many party regulars refused to back him, endorsing a third party run by former Representative Tom Tancredo instead. Hickenlooper won in a walk without ever drawing a primary challenger, running a negative ad, or taking a controversial stance.
MAINTAIN SOME DISTANCE FROM YOUR UNPOPULAR PARTY
He has continued to cultivate a public identity somewhat distinct from the state Democratic party. He even held his own victory party, several blocks from where other state Democrats were drowning their sorrows last Tuesday night. No doubt this partially reflects his rise through the political system somewhat separate from typical party recruiting lines. And it likely served him well in the election. Though he and Udall were the ticket headliners, Hickenlooper ran ahead of the senator by about three points. The governor's advantage was nearly uniform across the state; their county-level vote shares correlate at 0.994. Some modest, but consequential, proportion of Coloradans likely voted Republican pretty much down their whole ballot but still preferred the Democrat for governor.
HAVE A STRONG FIRST TERM
One can certainly point to pluses and minuses in Hickenlooper's first term, but on the stuff that most voters care about—specifically, the economy and disasters—Hickenlooper had a strong showing. Colorado and Denver are among the top states and cities, respectively, for job creation in recent years. Colorado bounced back from the last recession far more quickly than most states, fueled in part by surges in the high tech and energy sectors. Evidence suggests that voters focus more on the national economy than the state one when making electoral decisions, but to the extent they noticed what was going on in Colorado, they likely credited the governor.
Beyond that, Hickenlooper's term was marred by a number of brutal natural disasters, including a spate of fires in the summer of 2012 and deadly flooding in 2013. Such events can be disastrous politically for incumbents, but they can also yield political benefits to governors if handled well. By basically all counts, Hickenlooper handled these well, touring disaster sites, channeling aid where is was needed, and closely supervising recovery efforts.
RUN A STRONG CAMPAIGN
I'm much more tentative on this lesson, since many Democrats who ran strong campaigns nonetheless lost last week. That said, Hickenlooper ran a relentlessly positive campaign, refusing to go negative on his opponent, Bob Beauprez. Beauprez reciprocated (although both of their allies went strongly negative anyway). Hickenlooper made a few potentially damaging flubs, but for the most part ran well, raised and spent tons of money, and handled himself competently in debates.
This year—2014—was simply a difficult environment for Democratic politicians. For a Democratic politician to prevail in a moderate state in such an environment was not impossible, but it was very, very difficult. Hickenlooper's example gives us an idea of what it took.