For Vail native Mike Johnston, last week’s endorsement of President Donald Trump by Sen. Cory Gardner wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back and forced him into the 2020 race to unseat the Republican senator. It was just one more straw in a massive hay bale of bad stuff.
“Trump and Gardner run away from the hardest problems, issues like climate change or gun violence that are on the top of people’s minds, and yet they’re creating all these new problems — like trying to take health care away from the millions of Coloradans who need it or shutting down the government,” Johnston told RockyMountainPost.com Jan. 31 after announcing his 2020 bid.
Johnston, 44, is a Vail Mountain School, Harvard and Yale graduate who has served as a teacher, small business owner, school principal, Obama administration education advisor and state senator in Denver, where he lives in the Stapleton neighborhood with his wife and three kids. Johnston’s late father, Paul, owned the Christiania Lodge and served as mayor of Vail.
Johnston finished third in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary behind eventual general-election winner Jared Polis and former Colorado Treasurer Cary Kennedy. He’s now the biggest political name to jump into the race to unseat Gardner, whom pundits say is one of the most vulnerable U.S. senators in 2020 given the state’s massive blue wave in the 2018 midterms.
According to Colorado Politics, several candidates have already announced for the Democratic senatorial primary, including scientist and educator Trish Zornio of Superior; Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition Executive Director Lorena Garcia of Denver, Navy veteran Keith Pottratz of Grand Junction, activist James Blanton of Denver and pharmacist Dustin John Leitzel of Denver. The political website also reports former Colorado Speakers of the House Crisanta Duran and Andrew Romanoff are expected to jump into the campaign.
But the biggest name of them of all would be former Gov. John Hickenlooper who some speculate will seek Gardner’s U.S. Senate seat if he doesn’t decide to take on Trump.
“[Hickenlooper] seems pretty busy in Iowa and New Hampshire right now, which makes me strongly believe he’s got bigger plans than running for the U.S. Senate, so unless he’s opening a Wynkoop Brewery in Des Moines, I think he’s probably on the route to do something big,” Johnston said of Hickenlooper, the former Denver brewpub owner turned mayor and governor.
Gardner, meanwhile, made headlines this week for backing Trump so early in the 2020 race after being a “Never Trumper” in 2016. Democrat Hillary Clinton won Colorado by five percentage points in the 2016 presidential race, and Democrats won the governor’s mansion and every down-ballot race in 2018, including reclaiming control over the state senate.
Gardner told the conservative Independent Journal Review that he’s backing Trump in 2020 because “it’s the right thing to do for Colorado. Look, I’ve made it very clear that where I agree with the president, we will agree, or where I disagree, we will disagree. But I’m going to fight like hell for Colorado, and we’ve done some good things for Colorado. I know what [Democratic presidential candidate and Sen.] Kamala Harris and [2016 and possible 2020 candidate and Sen.] Bernie Sanders] will do to Colorado, and that’s why I’ll be supporting the president.”
Johnston says that kind of blind loyalty is hurting Colorado on issues like man-made climate change, which Trump has alternately called a “Chinese hoax” and recently dismissed because of this week’s polar vortex in the Midwest.
“Cory Gardner is backing a president who doesn’t believe that climate change exists, in a moment where all you have to is read the newspaper to see that the polar vortex exists because you had temperature spikes which dislodged the vortex in the first place,” Johnston said. “So, I think this is one of the most important issues of our time.”
A spokesman for Gardner touted the senator’s bipartisanship, citing a Colorado Politics article, and accused Johnston of being too far left to lead the state.
“Cory is one of the most bipartisan and effective members of the Senate and he’ll continue to work hard for Coloradans across the state,” Gardner spokesman Casey Contres said. “We are sure this entry of yet another candidate will drag the Democratic primary even further to the far left of the mainstream.”
Contres also pointed to a statement from the Republican National Committee.
“It’s only been a few months since Mike Johnston spent nearly $8 million to finish third place in the Democrat gubernatorial primary, and he’s already running again. Johnston has proven to be far more popular with Michael Bloomberg and Silicon Valley than he is with anyone actually in Colorado,” Colorado RNC spokesperson Kyle Kohli said in a prepared statement.
Kohli was referring to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose gun safety political action committees supported Johnston’s gubernatorial bid. Johnston, a gun owner, actually reached out to National Rifle Association members during his campaign.
“It tells you everything you need to know that [Republicans] obviously had an entire book of research ready for the moment that I announced because I’m the candidate that they’re most afraid of getting into this race,” Johnston said. “I could tell they were worried from day one and they ought to be because we’re going to win this race.”
Editor’s note: A version of this story first ran in the Vail Daily.