CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado is in discussions about ending his presidential bid and entering the race for his state’s Republican-held Senate seat, potentially giving Democrats a strong candidate in a race they must win to have hopes of retaking the chamber in 2021, according to four Democrats familiar with his thinking.
Mr. Hickenlooper, who is mired at the bottom of public polling of the presidential race, hopped into Senator Michael Bennet’s car on Friday night in this Northern Iowa town to discuss his impending decision, said Democrats familiar with the discussion, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential talks.
The two drove around Clear Lake for about 20 minutes ahead of the Wing Ding dinner, a Democratic fund-raiser that drew 21 presidential candidates. Aides and advisers to the two men, who have been both allies and rivals over their careers in Colorado politics, declined to reveal what was discussed.
[Who’s in? Who’s out? Keep up with the 2020 field with our candidate tracker.]
Officials who have been in discussions with the Hickenlooper campaign said Tuesday that the former two-term governor is giving serious consideration to switching to the Senate race but stressed that a final decision has not yet been made. Short of a massive change in political momentum, Mr. Hickenlooper is certain to fail to qualify for the next round of presidential debates in September, an additional blow to a campaign struggling to attract attention and financial contributions.
A spokesman for Mr. Hickenlooper, Peter Cunningham, declined to comment on the former governor’s plans or what was discussed during his Friday night drive with Mr. Bennet, who is also running for president. A Bennet aide also declined to comment on their discussion.
Recent days have brought unsubtle messages that high-ranking Democratic officials in Colorado and Washington believe Mr. Hickenlooper is in the wrong race.
The Denver Post on Sunday published polling done on behalf of “a national Democratic group involved in Senate races” that showed Mr. Hickenlooper holding a 51-point lead over two other Democrats in the state’s 2020 Senate race.
On Monday, the 314 Action Fund, a super PAC that backs candidates who are scientists, announced a “Draft Hick for Senate” campaign along with a poll it commissioned showing Mr. Hickenlooper leading Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican seeking re-election, by 13 percentage points in a head-to-head matchup.
[We asked Mr. Hickenlooper and other Democratic presidential hopefuls the same set of 18 questions. Watch them answer.]
Colorado is key to Democratic hopes of retaking a Senate majority in the 2020 election. Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, has spent months trying to recruit Mr. Hickenlooper to enter the contest to face Mr. Gardner. Mr. Hickenlooper would join a Democratic primary that already has 11 declared candidates, including Mike Johnston, a former state senator who placed third in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor; Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker; John Walsh, a former United States attorney for Colorado; and Dan Baer, a former Obama administration official.
Mr. Hickenlooper has pooh-poohed his interest in running for the Senate. In February he told reporters in Iowa that he is “not cut out to be a senator.”
Mr. Gardner is seeking a second term in office but faces headwinds in a state where President Trump is highly unpopular. In 2016 Mr. Trump lost Colorado to Hillary Clinton by five points. A July poll of likely Colorado voters from a Republican-aligned firm found Mr. Trump with a 39 percent approval rating in the state and concluded he trails a generic Democratic general election opponent by 12 percentage points.
Democrats must win a net of three Republican-held Senate seats and win the White House to take control of the Senate.
Mr. Hickenlooper in recent weeks has seen an exodus of senior campaign aides, who advised him in the spring to end his presidential bid if his fund-raising and polling status did not improve by the end of July. He qualified and participated in the first two televised debates in June and July, but his performances were not memorable and there has been little improvement in his fund-raising, according to people familiar with his campaign’s finances.
During the three-month fund-raising period that ended June 30, Mr. Hickenlooper raised $1.1 million and spent $1.7 million, an unsustainable pattern for a candidate who has not caught fire with voters. He had $800,000 in his campaign account at the end of June, according to his Federal Election Commission report.
Mr. Johnston and Mr. Baer each raised more campaign funds for their Senate campaigns in the second quarter than Mr. Hickenlooper did for his presidential bid.
Yet when he appeared before Democratic activists in Clear Lake Friday night, Mr. Hickenlooper appeared unbowed. Amid the sounds of people chattering and eating their baked beans and pulled pork, he said his case for the presidency relies on his stature as a chief executive untarred by Washington politics.
“My plan to beat Donald Trump is to start by looking at our history,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “No sitting senator has ever beaten an incumbent president. Go backwards with Clinton to Reagan to Carter to Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson, all former governors who defeated incumbent presidents. Just want to make that clear — governors are closer to the people.”