Before Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is the subject of any more 2016 presidential speculation, he has a little business to take care of at home. The first-term Democrat's approval ratings have fallen sharply this year, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll which also shows Hickenlooper tied -- with dangerously low support -- in 2014 reelection matchups against two Republicans.
The poll had Hickenlooper and former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo deadlocked in a potential matchup, with 42 percent of respondents choosing Hickenlooper and 41 percent choosing Tancredo, who ran for president on an anti-illegal immigration platform in 2008. Quinnipiac also showed Hickenlooper essentially tied with GOP Secretary of State Scott Gessler, 42 percent to 40 percent. Tancredo, who ran for the state's highest office in 2010 under the Constitution Party's banner, announced his GOP bid for governor at the end of May, while Gessler has formed a campaign committee but has not fully committed to the race yet. Hickenlooper leads state Sen. Greg Brophy, another Republican who has been the subject of gubernatorial speculation, 43 percent to 37 percent, in the poll.
Forty-seven percent of the registered voters polled approved of Hickenlooper’s performance as governor, compared to 43 percent who said they disapproved. When Quinnipiac last polled in Colorado, in partnership with CBS and the New York Times in October 2012, 59 percent of respondents said they approved of Hickenlooper, against just 21 percent who disapproved. Just 45 percent of voters say Hickenlooper deserves reelection, and 44 percent say he does not.
Quinnipiac surveyed 1,065 registered voters from June 5-10. The poll's margin of error is plus-or-minus 3 percentage points. Only 24 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, nine percentage points lower than the share that turned out in 2010, according to exit polls. Still, the survey reveals that the governor is suffering with independents, 47 percent of whom disapprove of Hickenlooper, compared to 44 percent who approve. However, Hickenlooper actually lost independents to Tancredo in 2010, despite beating Tancredo by nearly 15 percentage points overall; the Republican ticket led by businessman Dan Maes captured only 11 percent of the vote.
The new poll also suggests it's no stretch to draw a line between Hickenlooper's declining popularity and recent items on his agenda. Hickenlooper granted a temporary death penalty reprieve to convicted murderer Nathan Dunlap in May, saying Colorado's application of the death penalty was "imperfect and inherently inequitable."
But 69 percent of voters say the state should continue having the death penalty as a legal option, and 67 percent said they disagreed with Hickenlooper's decision to grant the reprieve. Tancredo cited Hickenlooper's decision as a main motivator for entering the race again next year.
Meanwhile, 49 percent of the poll respondents said they disapproved of the job performance of the state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats and wrote a number of liberal priorities -- including some contentious ones -- into law this year. A suite of new gun laws caused particular controversy and led to an ongoing recall effort against two Democratic state senators. Hickenlooper did not issue any vetoes in 2013, though he did help scuttle some bills (including a death penalty repeal effort) before they could get to his desk.
Still, after Hickenlooper spent his first two years in office mostly above the partisan fray as part of a divided government, Republicans accused the governor this year of working in lockstep with a "radical" Democratic legislature. When the legislative session had just gotten underway earlier this year, some Republicans predicted and hoped that the laws Democrats produced would unravel some of Hickenlooper's bipartisan appeal.
So far, it seems to be working -- something not wholly unexpected by Hickenlooper's team. Last month, one of the governor's advisers said it would be natural for Hickenlooper's support to drop as conservative voters who like him personally remembered he was a Democrat. (The same thing happened when he filed as a Democrat to run for governor in 2010.)
The question is whether Republicans can take advantage of the weakened governor. Over one-third of the poll respondents said they hadn't formed an opinion of Tancredo, and over 75 percent said the same of Gessler. Democratic strategists are confident they could paint either as too conservative for the state, and even some Republicans view Tancredo as damaged goods, especially as the party tries to appeal anew to Hispanic voters. More than three-in-five Hispanic voters said they didn't know enough about Tancredo to form an opinion, suggesting Democrats have a wide opening to exploit his past stances on immigration as the campaign ramps up. But both Republicans have experience running statewide, with Gessler notching a win in 2010, and Hickenlooper is certainly under more pressure having fallen from the untouchable heights of his first few years in office.