Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper doesn't regret meeting with President Obama in Denver this summer for beers and a game of billiards, even if the images have been used to attack him in a close race for reelection.
"If the president of the United States calls you up, of either party, and says they want to discuss the affairs of your state, I always say yes, whether it's politically popular or not," Hickenlooper said in a phone interview with Fusion. "He's the president of United States."
Hickenlooper's opponent, Republican Bob Beauprez, has been using the photos of the meeting as visual evidence that the governor is an Obama "pushover."
"Certainly the Republican party is doing everything they can to demonize the president and vilify him, but, to be honest, I don't think that imagery helped me or hurt me all that much," Hickenlooper said. "Just my opinion."
The race between Hickenlooper and Beauprez is tight, with polls near even. While the photos themselves won't radically tilt the outcome, they symbolize how the contest — like many races across the country — has turned into a referendum on the Obama presidency.
"The visuals of him playing pool and having a beer with the president had the effect of creating a nationalization of the statewide election," said Kenneth Bickers, a political science professor at the University of Colorado. Bickers says the social issues — guns, land rights and marijuana — have played a less central role than some expected. Instead, the election has become "a proxy for how people feel about Washington and the president," he said.
Over the years, few state-level politicians have been as closely linked to Obama as the Colorado governor. In 2008, Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver when the city hosted the Democratic National Convention, the event where Obama became the party's first African American presidential nominee. Obama addressed fellow Democrats in a Super Bowl-style acceptance speech at Invesco Field, electrifying a crowd of 84,000 and setting course for a general election victory.
Both as mayor and later as governor, Hickenlooper helped win Colorado for Obama in 2008 and 2012 — no easy feat in a state that had gone to Republicans for decades.
The president and Hickenlooper at Wynkoop Brewing Company in downtown Denver. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Considering the backstory, it's not surprising Hickenlooper and the president went for a beer over the summer (the venue was also Wynkoop Brewing Company, a successful microbrewery Hickenlooper founded in 1988). But the Obama he met in July wasn't the charismatic upstart who invigorated the party base at his political outset.
The president found himself an unpopular man this summer, even among friends. His job approval rating moldered around 44 percent, but that wasn't even the worst part: an immigration crisis on the southern border seemed to be spiraling out of control and he was grappling with a new terrorist threat in the Middle East.
His brand seemed so toxic that Democrats in fragile midterm races avoided him. When the president headlined a July fundraiser for Colorado Sen. Mark Udall in Denver, the latter opted to stay in Washington.
Hickenlooper has also broken ranks with Obama. He's supported the president's healthcare law, but recently said, "I'm no big fan of the Affordable Care Act." Hickenlooper meant that he would have preferred the state to craft a plan independently, but the statement distanced him from the president's signature initiative.
Immigration could be another area where Hickenlooper splits with the president. Obama has vowed to reform immigration policy after the midterm elections. While the details remain unclear, immigrant rights activists expect the White House to make a bold statement, perhaps creating a deportation relief program for millions of people.
Hickenlooper told Fusion he won't blindly support the president's plan. "I haven't seen a list of what he's considering or what he'd hope to achieve, so I'd probably need to withhold my judgment," he said.
The election won't be decided solely on the president's reputation and a game of billiards (which Obama won, handily). Fracking, marijuana, guns and abortion rights have all been hot topics in Colorado, not to mention the biggest concern, the economy. Hickenlooper is a centrist at his core and he's hustled to satisfy the split interests among potential voters.
He brokered a deal around fracking to keep an initiative off the ballot that would prohibited drilling for natural gas within 2,000 feet of schools and hospitals. When asked by Fusion whether he would be comfortable with drilling that close to his own home, he said, "Of course. We wouldn't be having this discussion if I didn't think we could do it in a way that was absolutely clean and safe."
He's been opposed to marijuana legalization since Colorado approved it in 2012, but allowed the program to move forward without too much interference. He says "the jury's still out" on whether legalization was a good idea, but that he's "cautiously optimistic."
To the irritation of the pot lobby, he routinely highlights the potential dangers of cannabis. Speaking with Fusion, he cited a study suggesting marijuana can have a negative impact on the brain functions of young people. "Well, kids don't think that," he said. "They think that if we legalized it then it's perfectly safe, it's like having a beer."
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.