Gov. John Hickenlooper paused, hands on hips and a grin on his face, to listen to the chant of "Four more years" echo through t...
A ballot count stretched into the morning hours before Hickenlooper emerged with a slim victory against Republican Bob Beauprez.
The governor became the lone Democrat to win a statewide contest and one of the few bright spots for the national party in Tuesday's midterm election dominated by Republicans.
The bleary-eyed Hickenlooper used his delayed victory speech to outline a vision for a moderate second-term agenda meant to rekindle the maverick image that once boosted his national political profile.
"This is a moment and an opportunity to seize the day and to move forward," Hickenlooper said, "not to dwell on the wedge issues that too often divide us."
The Denver Post called the race for governor at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Later in the day, with 95 percent of the vote counted, Hickenlooper held 48.6 percent to 46.7 percent for Beauprez. The other four candidates in the race combined for less than 5 percent.
Beauprez didn't initially concede, saying earlier in the day that thousands of ballots remained outstanding. But in a letter to supporters at 3:45 p.m., he acknowledged that "there just aren't enough options to get us across the finish line."
"I just spoke with Governor Hickenlooper. We had a good conversation and I congratulated him on a hard-fought race," he wrote.
Unlike other nervous Democrats on this year's ballot, Hickenlooper appeared calm and confident Tuesday as he watched returns from a hotel room with family and longtime friends at his side.
The polling in the race showed a tied contest in the final days, and Republicans went into Election Day with a solid advantage in early votes.
But Hickenlooper's internal polling gave him a substantial edge, and the first returns showed him ahead in Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, two swing areas that traditionally determine the winner. Even when Beauprez held a 1-percentage point advantage for hours on election night, uncounted ballots in Democratic-heavy Boulder and Denver counties gave the campaign solace.
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"I didn't feel anxious," Hickenlooper said in an interview with The Post. "There were some peaks and some troughs within that, but we felt pretty confident that it was going to come our way."
In the campaign, the former two-term Denver mayor managed to win by separating himself from President Barack Obama and the larger anti-incumbent mood that plagued other Democrats on the ticket — particularly Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, who lost by almost 3.4 points to Republican challenger Cory Gardner.
Hickenlooper's campaign pushed the contrast by emphasizing Colorado's fast-growing economy and his kinship to the state' s energy industry, while also tapping into his independent brand and business background to appeal to swing voters.
He credited his campaign's hard work — and his 92-hour weeks in the final run.
"Often an off-year election is tough for incumbents," he said. "This was an especially tough year for incumbents everywhere."
Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University, said he was struck by the number of voters — about 5 percent — who split their ballots, lifting Gardner but sinking Beauprez.
"I think it says a lot about politics in a purple state," Saunders said. "Candidates who position themselves in the middle of the electorate are better positioned to win a purple state. It's not rocket science."
It also spoke to Beauprez's campaign. Unlike Gardner, he failed to capture the energy and offer a fresh face for voters.
In Douglas County, a GOP bedrock, Beauprez won fewer votes than any other statewide Republican candidate, despite it being home to his running mate, Commissioner Jill Repella.
"I think if Republicans would have had a better candidate on the ticket, we would have a Republican governor today," Saunders said.
Beauprez and Gardner entered their races about the same time, in early March, but Gardner said state campaign-finance limits "significantly lowered" Beauprez's ability to get name recognition.
"And people like Gov. Hickenlooper," Gardner said in an interview with The Post. "That's a tough hill to climb."
Looking forward, Hickenlooper said he will keep his focus on the economy and debut new programs in the next six months to find jobs for returning military veterans and long-term unemployed workers.
He also acknowledged that he is making adjustments after missteps in his current term. "We are going to make a much stronger effort to hear all sides," he said.
And he plans to re-establish his moderate province after a Democratic legislature pushed him uncomfortably into partisan terrain in past sessions.
"I think our way of governing has always been to try to work from the middle, try to bring both sides together," he said. "If anything, now it's just to accentuate that that's the appropriate way to lead."
John Frank: 303-954-2409, email@example.com or twitter.com/ByJohnFrank
Staff writers Joey Bunch and Lynn Bartels contributed to this report.