Dem Johnston going after Gardner's Senate seat

DENVER — Former Democratic state senator and gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston became the immediate front-runner in next summer's primaries Thursday when he announced plans to challenge Republican Cory Gardner for his U.S. Senate seat in 2020.

Johnston, a Vail native, said he was entering the race because he believes the state needs someone to lead rather than "blindly" standing with President Donald Trump and his policies.

In a controversial move, Gardner tweeted Wednesday that he would support Trump in his 2020 re-election bid because it is "the right thing to do for Colorado."

Johnston, however, said the opposite.

"Gardner and Trump run away from the hardest problems," Johnston said in an interview. "They run away from climate change, they run away from gun violence, all the major issues. Instead, they are creating all these new problems, like trying to take health care away from a million Coloradans who need it the most, or shutting down the government. People are just tired of that."

Johnston is the first major Democrat to enter the race, but he's not the first candidate. To date, three others have announced primary bids: Keith Pottratz of Grand Junction, Lorena Garcia of Denver and Trish Zornio of Superior.

The 44-year-old Johnston served in the Colorado Senate from 2009 to 2017, and focused primarily on education reform.

Last year, he made a narrow third-place finish to be the Democratic Party's nominee for Colorado governor, losing out to now Gov. Jared Polis and former Colorado Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who now works as Polis' senior adviser for fiscal policy.

Despite his primary challengers, Johnston immediately came out swinging against Gardner, saying while the sitting senator may sometimes talk tough about Trump, he supports the president more often than not. Johnston said he believes Gardner did that because he wants the president to come to Colorado to campaign with him.

"I don't think that's going to help him," Johnston said. "When he's campaigning in Colorado, Cory Gardner claims he's independent. But when he's voting in Washington, he sticks with Trump 92 percent of the time. He's the most out of step with this state than any of the 100 senators. Tying himself to Donald Trump is not going to help."

Johnston said his main focus as a U.S. senator will be on such issues as climate change, cracking down on gun violence, fixing the nation's immigration problems and working on lowering the cost of health care.

Johnston's announcement Thursday earned him immediate reaction from the Republican National Committee, something the other announced Democratic candidates in the race didn't merit.

RNC spokesman Kyle Kohli criticized Johnston for entering the political fray barely a year after finishing poorly in the last one.

"It's only been a few months since Mike Johnston spent nearly $8 million to finish third place in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, and he's already running again," Kohli said. "Johnston has proven to be far more popular with Michael Bloomberg and Silicon Valley than he is with anyone actually in Colorado."

Actually, Johnston only raised about $2.5 million during that yearlong campaign, according to campaign reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. Currently, Gardner has more than $1 million in his campaign coffers, according to the senator's latest Federal Election Commission report filed last fall.

A political action committee that supported Johnston called Frontier Fairness PAC, which the candidate had no control over, raised $5.7 million on the primary race, according to campaign reports.