WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — As the early Democratic presidential candidates come out with their tax and health care plans, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is pitching beer and bipartisanship.
The brewpub magnate recently swung through early-voting Iowa to test his theory that what voters really are interested in is someone with a record of achieving liberal goals even in a divided government.
“My whole public life is about bringing people together who are feuding and can’t stand each other,” Hickenlooper said at a house party.
He’s among the politicians trying to carve out a place for a centrist in a party that’s been moving to the left. In that group are Govs. Steve Bullock of Montana and Jay Inslee of Washington; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
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Their challenge is competing with senators already in the race and testing how far Democrats should go in appealing to the liberal base. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, for example, are backing new taxes on the rich and a government-run health care system for all in the United States.
But Bloomberg warns of the dangers of Venezuelan-style socialism and Hickenlooper urges Democrats to avoid getting bogged down by debate over single-payer health care.
Ben Tulchin, a pollster who worked for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, said Democratic voters don’t want compromise.
“The challenge with saying ‘I’ll work on bipartisanship’ — on what issue? Because the two parties are at such a stark contrast,” Tulchin said. “I don’t see how you gain any traction or win the nomination with a party that’s more liberal than it has ever been.”
A Gallup survey this month found that 51 percent of Democrats identify as liberal; that’s the highest percentage on record. But last month, Gallup found that 54 percent of Democrats want their party to be more moderate, while 41 percent want it to move left.
Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic pollster, said a more pragmatic primary bid wasn’t a bad idea. “There’s no question the greater energy is on the left in the party,” Mellman said. “But if there are 20 people fighting over the left and you’re fighting over the center, the person fighting over the center can win.”
That’s what Hickenlooper is betting on.
During his Iowa swing, he promoted himself as a progressive who gets things done. He recounted how, as Denver mayor, he led a coalition of Democratic and Republican mayors of surrounding suburbs to support a sales tax increase to expand regional light rail. As governor, he hammered out the nation’s first limits on methane emissions from energy exploration during tough negotiations between environmentalists and oil and gas companies.
Even with his talk of bipartisanship and moderation, Hickenlooper cannot ignore core Democratic principles.
He began his remarks at the house party by saying he was “over-the-top angry about what’s happened to the country in such a short period of time.” He said he would never run with Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich — they teamed up to fight the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — because of their disagreements on many other issues.
He’s clashed with the GOP on expanding background checks for gun purchases. In response to one question about health care, Hickenlooper showed how he would try to sidestep some of the Democratic divisions in the primary. He said the party’s goal is universal coverage and that Democrats should focus on getting there rather than on battles over single-payer health care. “Instead of fighting over that, let’s get to the grail,” he said.
Bill Brauch, a 67-year-old lawyer, was impressed with Hickenlooper, but not necessarily with his message of cooperation. “Barack Obama found out that trying to work together in this particular climate with the right wing in control of the Republican Party is a losing proposition,” Brauch said. “We simply have to have a stronger, more progressive federal government across the board.”
As Hickenlooper made the rounds at the Court Avenue Brewing Co., ale in hand, Dan Herron, a 50-year-old financial planner, stopped him. “What’s your plan to get through the contest of who hates Trump more?” Herron asked.
“What people are going to look for is people who have a consistent, long-term record of bringing people together,” Hickenlooper said.
Herron and his friend Kasey Kincaid, the former chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party, were intrigued.
“It’s a very positive message,” Kincaid said. “There are more people, like Dan and myself, who are looking for someone with a record of solving problems.”
Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Nashua, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.