Hickenlooper-Kasich 2020 presidential ticket rumor gets new life, despite recent denials

With every joint cable talk show appearance, the Hickenlooper-Kasich or Kasich-Hickenlooper 2020 presidential run rumors get stronger.
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Governor John Hickenlooper visits the American Ninja Warrior finals shoot in front of the City and County Building, May 25, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) american ninja warrior; civic center park; denver; denverite; colorado; kevinjbeaty

With every joint cable talk show appearance, the Hickenlooper-Kasich or Kasich-Hickenlooper 2020 presidential run rumors get stronger.

On Friday, Axios' Mike Allen, a veteran political reporter, was out with a report that appears far more detailed than anything we've seen so far, and CNN also had a story about "very, very early conversations about possibly coming together." Both stories rely on anonymous sources who are reportedly close to the discussions.

Headlined with the very certain "Kasich, Hickenlooper eye joint 2020 bid," the Axios report says that Ohio Gov. John Kasich likely would lead the ticket, while Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper would run for vice president. Kasich is a Republican, and Hickenlooper is a Democrat, so this would be an unusual "unity ticket" outside the normal party process. Their platform would focus on fixing health care (the subject of many of their media appearances to-date), immigration and job creation, with particular emphasis on preparing American workers to withstand a wave of automation.

In the meantime, in early September, the pair will hold a health care conference that includes input from the American Enterprise Institute on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left. Then, look for a Hickenlooper-Kasich podcast or cable show to cement their brand.

Will this actually happen?

Hickenlooper is the ultimate tease when it comes to his presidential ambitions. Earlier this year, he gave an interview to The Denver Post's John Frank in which he said he "couldn't have been more clear" that he wasn't running, only to tell an audience at a Politico-organized conference "down the road, who knows?" THE VERY NEXT DAY.

As Fox 31's Joe St. George pointed out on Twitter Friday, it was just a few weeks ago that Hickenlooper told Colorado political reporters that a Hickenlooper/Kasich ticket was "fun to talk about," but "it's not in the cards," adding that Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez "would kill me."

Listen for yourself.

And on Friday, he reiterated his commitment to working for the people of Colorado until his term ends in 2018.

Hickenlooper is term-limited and will need some sort of new job, come 2019. But from his own Twitter account, he downplayed the possibility.

Longtime Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said this frustrating coyness is "a common Colorado trait of politicians who are nationally ambitious."

"The history is that for a very long time, as soon as you talk about national ambitions, you get into local trouble," he said. "They say, 'you're not paying attention to us,' and everything gets judged by their national ambitions."

So all those denials are really confirmations?

"He's absolutely interested, but he's realistic," Ciruli said of Hickenlooper. "This would be the longest of long shots, but at the moment, this is a really interesting perspective in terms of partisanship and gridlock and moving past that."

Both candidates look good on paper. They represent key swing states, and they were both born in another key swing state, Pennsylvania. They're both seen as representing the more moderate, pragmatic wings of their own parties. They would seek to capitalize on the perception that the political parties and our political system as a whole are broken, that this is a time to try something different.

Kasich has also played with the idea of running against President Donald Trump in a primary, but it's worth remembering that in his 2016 run, Kasich won only his home state of Ohio. While Trump's approval ratings are pretty bad overall, he retains significant support among Republican voters.

Ciruli said the fact that this ticket is being talked about at all reflects the political moment we're in, one where both parties produced candidates that were broadly unpopular in the last general election and there is widespread disgust with gridlock in Congress and intense partisanship.

"It's the best alternative theme out there," he said.

But there are big barriers.

"Logistically, it's kind of hard to imagine how this all comes together," said Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. "They're running essentially as a third-party ticket. To compete with the other parties would be very challenging. They'd have to build operations in all 50 states and get on the ballot and raise money without a party behind them.

"And it's not clear if they are building some new moderate party or if this is about the two of them," he continued. "And if it's the two of them, what issues are they pushing and what policy positions do they have? Judging by their records as governors, they have quite a number of disagreements, especially on social issues."

Those differences would make a so-called unity ticket a "bitter pill" for many Democrats, Masket said.

"Democratic activists will be quick to point out Kasich’s very conservative stances on quite a few issues, including abortion, Social Security, business regulation and tax cuts," he said. "It was easy to portray him as a more palatable alternative to Trump in 2016, but most of his stances would make him a very bitter pill for Democrats to swallow, particularly if there is a more traditional Democratic nominee running."

As some Democrats have called for more focus on economic issues in the wake of their 2016 defeat, others in the party have raised fears that the party will abandon its commitment to reproductive rights for women and to civil rights more broadly. Any squishiness on choice will meet fierce resistance from many party activists and voters.

At the same time, Hickenlooper's more liberal positions might make it harder to attract Republican voters. Kasich is reasonably well positioned to run against Trump in a Republican primary where many voters might have buyer's remorse, but making an independent run with Hickenlooper would foreclose that possibility, Masket said.

Ciruli said the more likely third-party candidate would be someone very rich and capable of self-financing a national run -- someone like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose recent tour of the country complete with many social media posts with "real Americans" raised speculation, or former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- not "a couple of well-intentioned politicians."

Masket noted that the third-party or independent candidate is a perennial feature of American politics, even in much less polarized times. Think Ross Perot in 1992 or John Anderson in 1980. Neither one came even close to being elected.

Even if Hickenlooper and Kasich were to run and even if they were to get on the ballot in most states, this is still an uphill battle.

"Our political system isn't really designed for more than two parties," said Masket, who has written about why the parties aren't going away anytime soon. "That's not to say that a third party can't garner attention and votes and affect how the race turns out. Generally speaking, though, voters are going to go Republican or Democratic."

A Kasich-Hickenlooper ticket would introduce massive uncertainty into the race, Masket said.

"Assuming Trump were running for re-election in 2020, this could presumably pull the votes of moderate Republicans, but if there is also a Democrat on the ticket, it's not clear who it could pull more from," he said.

If nothing else, this speculation raises the profile of the governors' brands.

"Good for them," Ciruli said. "They'll make a lot of talk shows."

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