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U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, on a tour of abandoned mines in Clear Creek County. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is the top general in the battle to maintain the GOP’s razor-thin majority in the Senate and, like any good leader, he says he’s feeling confident in the party’s ability to hold the line.

But as he moves resources around the nation to try to keep Democrats from gaining the seats they need to take back the Senate, the November contest that worries him most is the tight race for the seat left open when Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake declined to run again.

“Arizona is probably the toughest seat. I think, from where I’m worried about, that’s going to get the most interest,” Gardner, a Colorado Republican and chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said earlier this month after an event in Arvada. “I feel good about where the seat’s at. Polling has it in the right direction right now.”

On the ballot for U.S. Senate in Arizona is Democrat U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally. Polls show the race as being extremely tight.

Republicans hold 51 seats in the Senate to the Democrats’ 47. Two other senators are independents — U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Angus King, of Maine — but align with Democrats.

That means there’s a delicate mathematical game afoot where Republicans, led by Gardner, are trying to place money in the right states at the right time to maintain control of the chamber.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun.)

Specifically, Gardner is tasked with overseeing fundraising and cheerleading for the party arm working to elect Republicans. It’s a job that comes with perks, but also potential risks, for Colorado’s junior senator, who must also ensure he doesn’t position himself poorly as he prepares to seek reelection in 2020.

The Colorado Sun spoke with Gardner and others to understand how the NRSC position could help or hurt him as he approached a 2020 reelection campaign. The role is identical to one Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet held four years ago.

“This job is as partisan a jobs you can take on,” said Eric Sondermann, an independent Denver political analyst. “Bennet did it during a very tough year for Democrats. Gardner is doing it in what is clearly going to be a tough year for Republicans. I think Bennet naviaged it reasonably well without really destroying his Colorado reputation. I think Gardner’s done it reasonably well also, with one huge asterisk.”

First, it’s important to understand how the two-year NRSC job works.

Gardner gives weekly presentations about the campaign to Senate Republicans, who meet thrice-weekly for lunch.

He’s also spending time fundraising for the NRSC and has been pulling in tens of millions of dollars for the group. The Center for Responsible Politics, which tracks campaign spending, reports that the NRSC has pulled in $114 million for the 2018 cycle so far  and spent about $106 million.

The chairmanship also requires travel on behalf of GOP candidates, and recently Gardner has stumped for Republicans in Nevada, Arizona, Montana and West Virginia. (Gardner and his staffers maintain that the NRSC job never distracts from his focus on Colorado and that the state’s needs always come first.)

Working with Trump

The most problematic part of the NRSC chairmanship for Gardner is likely how proximate it puts him to President Donald Trump.

Gardner has appeared alongside Trump as part of his NRSC work — a fact that liberal opponents are already using  to undermine his reelection bid.

For instance, he was photographed getting off Air Force One with the president on Aug. 21, the day former Trump associates Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, respectively the president’s former personal lawyer and campaign manager, pleaded guilty and were convicted of crimes, respectively, in federal court.

“He’s tremendous and done so much,” Trump said of Gardner at a campaign rally in West Virginia following the Air Force One ride. “He’s helping to lead our campaign to elect more Senate Republicans.”

That trip is the asterisk Sondermann is referring to. The political analyst added: “Clearly that night was a night that Cory Gardner would like to soon forget and a ride on Air Force One he wishes he didn’t take.”

But Gardner is keeping the president — whose approval ratings among Colorado voters have been low — at arm’s length.

“The president signed the tax bills,” Gardner said. “The president has led reductions in regulations. I’m going to have my disagreements with the president, but in terms of reducing regulations, cutting taxes — those have been good for the economy. I’m going to agree with him where we agree and disagree where we don’t agree, but I think that’s the Colorado way.”

Gardner didn’t vote for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and has had to tread carefully as he promotes an image of bipartisanship.

Gardner made the decision in November to pull NRSC financial backing for Roy Moore as the GOP judge ran in a special election for the U.S. Senate in Alabama. Moore had been accused of sexual misconduct toward teenage girls while he was in his 30s.

“I believe the individuals speaking out against Roy Moore spoke with courage and truth, proving he is unfit to serve in the United States Senate and he should not run for office,” Gardner said in a statement at the time. “If he refuses to withdraw and wins, the Senate should vote to expel him.”

It was a move that pitted him against other Senate Republicans and the president.

The fundraising and influence upsides

The upside to the job is that it gives Gardner access to some of the nation’s largest donors. For instance, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and a number of other top executives from the online-retail giant recently donated tens of thousands of dollars to Gardner’s 2020 campaign, CNBC reported.

The role also has Gardner constantly rubbing shoulders with the top Republicans in the Senate — a fact that those close to Gardner say gives him an opportunity to promote the state and solve its pressing issues. That could also prove to be problematic as Democrats work to cast Gardner as a hard-right conservative in 2020.

“I would suspect that the donors he’s added to his rolls will more than make up for those clips from (the West Virginia rally with Trump),” Sondermann said.

Finally, Gardner has installed some of his top political deputies in the NRSC. That includes his former chief of staff and campaign manager Chris Hansen, who serves as the committee’s executive director.

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet held an identical job for Democrats in 2014, when he was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

There was concern then that the job could hurt Bennet’s image as a moderate willing to work across the aisle and potentially put his 2016 reelection changes in jeopardy.

Democrats lost their Senate majority in 2014, in part because Gardner beat Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado. Bennet easily won reelection two years later

“Look, that was Michael Bennet’s job,” Gardner told The Denver Post just after winning in 2014. “He did what he believed he had to do to fulfill his duties. I look forward to working with him.”

Bennet told The Sun this week that he spoke to Gardner about the NRSC job before Gardner took the two-year position, which ends after the midterm election wraps in November.

“We talked it through,” said Bennet, who is close friends with Gardner. “For me, the deal that I struck was: While I would do the work to develop the strategy and help raise the money and all of that, that I wasn’t going to going to attack my colleagues in the press — which was an acceptable strategy because there were other people who were happy to do that so I didn’t need to.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks at a campaign event for Colorado Democrats in Denver’s Washington Park on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gardner seems to be following in Bennet’s footsteps in that regard. When asked about the NRSC chairmanship, he recently touted a ranking as one of the most bipartisan members of the Senate as an example that he’s willing to work across party lines.

“I actually think that Sen. Bennet and I can use the collective experiences between us to show how people can work together and not let partisanship cloud their ability to accomplish things for their state,” Gardner said in an interview. “I think we present a great example, a great model, for our colleagues in the Senate — one Republican, one Democrat to work together to find common-ground solutions. So, yeah, I think we’re uniquely situated to actually use this experience and say, ‘This is what we did, but it didn’t stop us from working together.’ ”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....