Cory Gardner is in the middle, facing crossfire

Cory Gardner is in the middle, facing crossfire


As the 2020 elections approach, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner is under fire.

Democrats, of course, want him out. As one of only two sitting Republican senators representing a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016, Gardner is pegged by the Democratic National Committee as one of its top 2020 targets.

And since 2017, left-wing Colorado activists have been beating their war drums against him. Armed with satirical, life-sized cardboard cutouts of the senator, and a ream of grievances, groups such as Progress Now Colorado and Indivisible Front Range Resistance, have held town hall meetings across the state, demanding Gardner’s head.

The cries of dissent reached fever pitch when Gardner voted (with 50 other Republicans) not to allow more witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Trump. Days later, Gardner joined the majority of his Republican colleagues to acquit the president of the charges leveled against him by Democrats in the House of Representatives.

“It’s time to unite and fight,” state Rep. Joe Salazar shouted Saturday during an anti-Gardner rally in Denver. “We vote, and we vote big. We are going to come out.”

But uniting has proved difficult. Nine Democratic candidates are locked in a bitter primary battle for the Senate nomination, in large part because of former Gov. and erstwhile presidential candidate John Hickenlooper’s late entry into the race. Hickenlooper is still embroiled in a corporate ethics scandal from his time as governor. Many state Democrats resent his presumptuous late candidacy.

Hickenlooper’s primary foe, former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff, has repeatedly accused Hickenlooper of being “recruited” into the race by the national party, which is true. Romanoff has taunted Hickenlooper, saying he knows he “wouldn’t be good” at the job, which Hickenlooper admitted during his presidential run last year. At a January forum featuring all of the Democratic candidates, Romanoff tore into national party leaders for attempting to turn the “contest into a coronation.”

The Gardner campaign has piled on as well, stoking the fires of division on the Left amid Hickenlooper’s calls for moderation (such as slowing progress toward universal healthcare and the elimination of fossil fuels). Romanoff’s activist base has swung sharply to the left.

“There is no such thing as a ‘moderate’ Democrat anymore,” Jerrod Dobkin, Gardner’s campaign communications director, told the Washington Examiner. “All of the Democrat candidates want to impose their radical agenda on hardworking Coloradans that will destroy the economy and kill jobs.”

In any other race, division among Democrats might give Gardner a clear edge. But here, division cuts both ways. Gardner is also getting hammered by anti-Trump Republicans for voting along party lines in Trump’s impeachment trial. In the most flagrant example, a January advertisement released by the Lincoln Project slammed Gardner for “putting Trump over Colorado every time.” The Lincoln Project is a group fronted by disgruntled Never Trump Republicans including George Conway, husband of Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway, plus Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson.

“Why do the polls show you headed for humiliating defeat in November? Because Colorado trusted you to work for us, not Donald Trump,” the ad says. “Tough people built our great state, and they’ve always fought for what’s right. The only thing you’ll fight for is Trump. You’re just another Trump servant: weak, frightened, impotent, a small man terrified of a political bully.”

These charges are demonstrably false. Polls do not show Gardner headed for a humiliating defeat in November. And he is far from written off. Talking to the Washington Examiner, GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “I still have a lot of belief in Cory.”

The Cook Political Report lists Gardner’s seat as a toss-up, as it does those of fellow Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona. Gardner’s record proves he’s not just another Trump servant, beginning with the fact that he did not vote for Trump in 2016. Gardner wrote in now-Vice President Mike Pence instead after calling for Trump to step off the ticket following the leak of his Access Hollywood tape in October 2016.

When Trump first took office, Gardner continued to be critical. After the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, he was the first Republican to condemn Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” response. Gardner tweeted, “Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”

Similarly, when Trump endorsed the doomed Alabama Senate candidate, Roy Moore, in a special election later that year, following accusations that Moore had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with teenage girls while in his 30s, Gardner spoke out. He said Moore’s accusers “spoke with courage and truth,” and he called for Moore to withdraw from the race. These were strong words from the then-chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Gardner threatened that if Moore refused and went on to win, there would be a Senate “vote to expel him.”

Despite this, however, Gardner is no Never Trumper. He has built a solid relationship with the president and his administration, using it to swing federal dollars to Colorado. His most significant achievements have been his pushes for the relocation of the Bureau of Land Management in western Colorado and the establishment of the new Space Command in Colorado Springs. He’s also been a fervent supporter of Trump’s United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and a reliable vote in the confirmation of Trump’s judicial nominees, including the contentious Supreme Court pick of Brett Kavanaugh.

For his support in the Senate and his leadership of the NRSC through the first half of Trump’s term, Gardner earned a personal commendation from the president in 2018. While speaking at a rally in West Virginia, Trump called Gardner’s work to maintain Republican control of the Senate “tremendous.”

Two years later, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of work to keep Gardner in office, and, by extension, keep Republicans running the Senate. His shot at reelection depends on his ability to repudiate the charges brought against him from the Left and the Right, from Democrats and Never Trump Republicans. Gardner must prove to voters what his record already shows: that he truly is a centrist, undeterred by multifronted partisan attacks.

But Gardner is no stranger to the centrist’s high-wire walk. In fact, it’s how he broke into the Senate in 2014. A look back on this election provides some insight into how Gardner will face similar challenges in 2020.

He announced his Senate run after serving two terms in the House. There, he had been seen as a rising star after ousting freshman Democrat Betsy Markey in 2010. Like many Republicans who cut their teeth in the Tea Party wave, Gardner went to Washington promising to reduce “wasteful and duplicative” federal programs, as well as to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.

Gardner’s 2014 Senate run was essentially an expansion of his 2010 platform, but this time aimed at the vulnerable first-term Democrat Mark Udall. Upon announcing his campaign, Gardner expressed frustration that Udall seemingly placed loyalty to Obama over Colorado, telling the Washington Examiner, “So, my wife said, ‘You can stay in the House and get reelected, or you can make a difference by running for the Senate.’”

Gardner’s campaign focused on fundamental issues: healthcare, the economy, and energy. He vowed to be a “new kind of Republican” who focused on bipartisanship and delivering results for Colorado.

The Udall campaign launched a spectacularly expensive broadside developed from the so-called “Colorado Model,” which had secured Democratic wins in the state since 2004. The model, which is now the Democratic playbook for every high-profile race, was once explained by former member of the Colorado House of Representatives Rob Witwer as, “First, establish the narrative that the Republican candidate is extreme, narrow-minded, and obsessed with social issues. Second, wait for him to confirm that narrative, either through a gaffe or a loose remark. Third, having reduced the candidate to a caricature, use state-of-the-art data and voter mobilization to bring the election home.”

In Gardner’s case, the social issue was his past support for “personhood,” a pro-life cause that sought to protect unborn babies as “persons.” It’s a deeply held belief among many pro-lifers but not considered politically viable rhetoric among movement leaders.

The Udall campaign alleged that Gardner, a Missouri Synod Lutheran, was a fundamentalist, woman-hating bigot bent on imposing the strictest restrictions on abortion and outright bans on birth control. Aided by the abortion industry’s political arms, $5 million in cash from Tom Steyer, and a healthy ecosystem of left-wing statewide organizations, the Udall campaign saturated Colorado’s airwaves with nonstop sex talk.

Gardner refused to be defined by this narrative. Not only did he rescind his past support of state-level personhood measures, but he also wrote an op-ed in the Denver Post advocating over-the-counter birth control for all women.

“Too many people in Washington would rather play politics with contraception instead of actually making life easier for women,” Gardner wrote. “Too many Democrats prefer to attack Republicans on the issue of contraception rather than actually make contraception more available and affordable, and too many Republicans are afraid to break the mold.”

When the issue continued to come up — it did with great regularity — Gardner brushed it off with jokes.

“It’s simply outrageous to believe that somebody would try to ban birth control,” Gardner said during a debate with Udall. “That’s simply outrageous. In fact, the first time my wife and I saw a television ad by Sen. Udall that said we wanted to ban birth control, my wife looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Didn’t you used to pick up my prescription?’”

Gardner’s good humor and commitment to issues outside of the bedroom bested Udall. A month before the election, the usually liberal Denver Post endorsed Gardner, citing his “energy and ideas” while decrying Udall’s “obnoxious one-issue campaign.”

Yet, in the race’s final week, Udall continued to hammer Gardner on the issue.

“If Cory Gardner gets his way, you better stock up on condoms,” warned an ad from NARAL Pro-Choice America, echoing a sentiment Udall had voiced in his own admonitions to voters. The senator had become so hyperfocused that the candidate’s critics dubbed him “Mark Uterus.”

In the end, the Colorado Model backfired, and Gardner won a narrow victory. He succeeded by deflecting Udall’s assaults and branding the Democrat as the real narrow-minded and social issue-obsessed candidate.

Gardner faces a similar predicament in 2020, as critics from both sides attempt to cast him as a “Trump servant.” But as in 2014, the Gardner campaign is confident. He has sought to embrace both Trump and his responsibilities to the state, explaining how a working relationship with the president has delivered results for Colorado.

“Sen. Gardner has repeatedly said he welcomes the president to come to Colorado and would invite the entire delegation to join them to celebrate relocating the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, establishing Space Force in Colorado Springs, and many other things they have delivered for this state,” Dobkin told the Washington Examiner. “If Colorado Democrats insist on campaigning against this state’s success stories, then they simply don't believe in Colorado the way Sen. Gardner does.”

As for Gardner’s Republican critics, a source close to the campaign pointed out that ads such as the one from the Lincoln Project don’t have enough money behind them to get significant airplay on Colorado TV. In short, there’s punditry but no infrastructure. Without “enough eyeballs to make a difference” on Never Trump jeremiads, they remain just that.

The Gardner campaign is betting on Trump not being nearly as contentious in Colorado at large as he is in Denver and its suburbs. After all, Trump is not as hated in the state as past Republicans have been. He lost the state by only 5 points in 2016, while Mitt Romney lost it by nearly 6 points in 2012 and John McCain by about 9 points in 2008. Coloradans are known to split their ballots. The year Gardner won his seat, Hickenlooper was reelected governor.

No matter which candidate ends up facing him in 2020, Gardner’s campaign is not convinced that centrist Colorado voters will sign on for increasingly left-leaning proposals such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All that will require massive increases in government spending.

“While most folks looking at Colorado’s recent elections focus on the performance of Democratic candidates, equally important is the overwhelming evidence that conservative economic principles can win at the ballot as well,” NRSC spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said, in reference to the defeat of a 2019 ballot measure that would have removed revenue caps on Colorado’s state budget.

Still, the race will be tight. Gardner may have a bipartisan record, but any record can be weaponized. This is bound to be one of the most expensive races of 2020 for both Republicans and Democrats. Gardner’s success depends on whether he can convince voters he is still that “new kind of Republican” from 2014 and that it is his opponents who are narrow-minded and obsessive.

Nic Rowan is a writer living in Washington.


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