COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Cory Gardner stormed into the Senate in 2014 at the height of anti-Obama fervor on the right, a fresh face vowing to be a “new kind of Republican” in a state drifting toward Democrats.
Now up for a second term in Colorado, Gardner is selling himself essentially the same way. Only this time Donald Trump’s in the White House, the president is deeply unpopular here and Gardner has a record in the Senate to defend — one that includes having the president’s back more often than not. Compounding his predicament: Colorado Republicans were just blown out in the midterms.
But to hear the exceedingly upbeat Gardner tell it, no course correction is in order: There’s still room in Colorado for a conservative but pragmatic Republican who gets along with Trump.
"You talk to some people and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, nobody got a single vote other than Hillary Clinton in Colorado,’" Gardner said in an interview during two days of non-stop barnstorming across the state. “If I were a Democrat, I would say the same thing: ‘When Democrats win, it’s permanent. And when Republicans lose it’s permanent.’ That’s just what they want the narrative to be. And it’s just not true."
As he seeks reelection on the front lines of the GOP’s efforts to defend its majority, Gardner’s formidable political skills face an even tougher test than when he pulled off his upset win five years ago over Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. He’s campaigning in a manner that makes Trump seem almost like an afterthought, as Gardner toils away on parochial issues like water management and takes on international ones like confronting North Korea.
He rarely mentions the president, except for when he’s asked directly about him or when he can point to his relationship with Trump as a plus for the state.
At a Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce event, Gardner told the suits in attendance that he’d spoken to the president about permanently locating U.S. Space Command in their region. But at a Lincoln Day GOP dinner in Alamosa — a remote town of about 10,000 near the New Mexico border — he all but avoided Trump. Gardner was introduced there as the “fifth-most bipartisan senator” — a soundbite voters are likely to hear throughout the campaign — before he took the stage and lit into socialism.
It’s far from assured Gardner can walk this tightrope for the next 18 months and keep his job. Democrats have made him their No. 1 Senate target next year, confident the state’s shift left has gone into overdrive since Trump took office. Colorado Democrats carry personal grudges against Gardner for the way he campaigned against Udall, and he’s up against a well-oiled Democratic Party machine backed by deep-pocketed outside groups.
Gardner’s opponents argue that his 49 percent support among state Republicans — combined with Trump’s 55 percent disapproval rating in the state and significant Democratic voter registration gains in voter registration — will spell the senator’s doom.
“There’s a lot of momentum at our back,” said former state Sen. Mike Johnston, a leading Democratic contender. The midterm elections were “just halftime.”
Nearly a dozen Democrats are running in the primary to take on Gardner, and the party’s Washington leadership is not picking favorites. Aside from Johnston, who’s already raised nearly $2 million, there’s former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a favorite among the liberal grass roots; former diplomat Dan Baer; and former U.S. Attorney John Walsh. A few House members are flirting with the race, plus a handful of others.
And some believe former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper could jump in if his presidential campaign stalls.
“There was a lot of speculation early on that there’s going to be some sort of A-list recruit,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young (R-Ind.). There hasn’t been, he said, “because Cory has been doing his work.”
Still, it’s a good time to be a Democrat in Colorado. In the past year alone, the state’s GOP gubernatorial nominee lost by 10 points, Republicans lost a critical swing House seat in the Denver suburbs and Democrats cemented healthy statehouse majorities.
But Gardner predicts the Legislature’s liberal "overreach" will swing the pendulum back his way. And some Democrats are sounding a note of caution.
“A lot of Democrats underestimate his skills as a politician and overestimate the certainty of a blue wave,” Romanoff said in an interview. “A lot of people have said to me ‘Cory is toast,’” he added, but “that’s completely wrong.”
If upstart senators could be created from test tubes, you’d probably end up with someone like Gardner. A 44-year-old with a streak of silvery hair and boundless energy, his staffers often have to take shifts during the day to keep up with him and Gardner doesn’t even drink coffee.
Gardner’s dexterity with language has served him well. He’s highly disciplined without sounding programmed.
And he has a quick wit: Informed that a Pueblo steel mill he toured last week was established in 1881, Gardner deadpans that just-retired octogenarian Sen. Orrin Hatch was in office at that time. At another point, he complains that his daughter used Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as a source for a school report on North Korea rather than asking him.
After initially declining to run in 2014, Gardner entered the race just nine months before the election. He launched a furious sprint that caught Democrats off guard.
That won’t happen again, they say.
“‘Look at me, I’m a moderate guy,’” is how state Democratic Party Chairman Morgan Carroll described Gardner’s pitch to voters in 2014. It worked on short notice, Carroll said, but now, “This state hates Trump” and Gardner is “embracing Trump.”
The challenge for Democrats is to contrast Gardner’s claims of bipartisanship with his record. They’re focusing on his votes to repeal Obamacare, confirm Trump’s nominees and support the president’s emergency declaration on the border wall. Gardner did buck the president on votes during the shutdown and on immigration reform, and he condemned Roy Moore’s candidacy in Alabama while leading the party’s campaign arm.
With Gardner constantly caught between Trump and independent voters, Democrats are drawing a parallel between Gardner’s tactics and former GOP Dean Heller, who faced similar political terrain last year in Nevada. “Dean tried to do the same thing. And lost,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).
Many Republicans were bracing for Gardner to tack left this year in preparation for his campaign. But the idea that Gardner would suddenly vote like a liberal belies who he is. Though he has often tried to work across the aisle, Gardner is reliably conservative on most issues other than immigration. As chairman of the NRSC, he devoted himself for two years to defeating incumbent Democrats.
“People are surprised to find out that I’m a Republican,” Gardner said, when asked about the uproar that ensued when he endorsed Trump’s reelection.
“I believe in limited government, I believe in low taxes,” he added later. “If that makes me a conservative, that makes me a conservative.”
In Pueblo, after speaking about water quality, Gardner was reminded that Trump looms large over everything. In quick succession, he was asked whether he backs the president’s border wall, then what he thinks of the administration’s “assault” on air quality. He said border security is important but that he sympathizes with those attracted to a better life in the United States and agrees that “all of us have an interest to ensure our water and air are clean."
To the extent that Gardner does talk about Trump, he argues that his state has more influence over the White House with a Republican senator.
“Absolutely," Gardner said. The effort he’s made to forge a relationship with the president "is for Colorado."
Democrats say that approach works for Gardner, but only to a point.
“Trump is likely to do things on immigration and health care that will imperil Sen. Gardner,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who partnered with Gardner on immigration last year. “It will be difficult to distinguish himself from President Trump because he has supported the president’s positions.”
Gardner avoids blanket criticisms of Trump; instead, he’s picked a handful of discrete issues to create some daylight. He held up Trump’s judicial nominees in an effort to protect the state’s burgeoning marijuana industry and derailed the nomination of Herman Cain to the Federal Reserve. Gardner complained about the 35-day shutdown but did not go after Trump over it.
The issue where Gardner is most critical of the president is North Korea.
“The president has, I’m afraid, taken pressure off of North Korea. He believes it’s a way for him to negotiate with Kim Jong Un,” Gardner said. “I believe it’s a rope a dope.”
In the Senate, Gardner wants to take up comprehensive immigration reform and steps to stop election interference by Russia. He said he wants to do more than just confirm Trump’s nominees. Asked whether that means trying to repeal Obamacare as he’s supported in the past, Gardner demurs. “Obamacare has failed,” he offers, but getting rid of it is unrealistic.
Taken together, a campaign blueprint emerges: Hold together Colorado Republicans, then cobble together a coalition of independents and conservative Democrats to put him over the top. In Colorado that means clearing about 48 percent of the vote.
“He appeals to a lot of the unaffiliated voters,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said of Gardner. (Colorado has more than 1.2 million people registered as unaffiliated.) And, “he’ll run ahead of Trump."
Colorado’s political history indicates its voters are open to splitting tickets: In 2004, Democrat Ken Salazar won a Senate seat as and George W. Bush carried Colorado in his reelection campaign.
But Colorado is seen as a long shot at best for Trump, and Republicans have lost their registration advantage there. There’s likely no other way for Gardner to win than draw crossover voters.
Gardner’s already working on his pitch for those Democrats, the latest iteration of his “new kind” of Republicanism. Except this time, it’s that he’s the same guy who stood in front of windmills in 2014 and said he’s "working across party lines."
Asked whether he’s changed since his electric run in 2014, Gardner chuckles.
“Yeah,” he said. “I think my suits have all gotten older and more worn out.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine