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Nicolais: The 2020 election begins Wednesday for Sen. Cory Gardner

After leading a Republican campaign poised to retain control of the U.S. Senate, Gardner will be the nation’s most heavily targeted candidate during the next election

Election Day finally arrives Tuesday. For Sen. Cory Gardner, that means the 2020 election begins Wednesday.

The continuous election cycle of modern politics won’t afford Gardner even a day of rest. After finishing a grueling cycle as chairman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Gardner’s attention must turn to his own seat full time if he wants to still be a senator in 2021.

While many Democrats hold out hope for a “blue wave” this year, they may just end up blue in the face. Despite the historically bad approval numbers for President Trump, and an energized liberal base, some structural obstacles seemed unsurmountable from the start.

Mario Nicolais

In particular, Democrats began this two-year election cycle facing a brutal map. Of the 35 current races for Senate seats, Democrats must defend 26 seats. To make matters worse, even if Democrats can hold all of those seats — and that almost certainly will not happen — the remaining nine seats held by Republicans offer only a handful of potential pickups.

The rest represent ruby-red states where the only pertinent question is who won the Republican primary.

Down 49-51 headed into the election, Democrats needed to net two additional seats to wrest control of the Senate away from Republicans and Vice-President/Tiebreaker Pence.

I can hear the “but Beto O’Rourke!” cries now. If you believe he will win, I have some beachfront property in West Texas to sell you.

But Democrats may rue the amount of money and energy directed to O’Rourke if incumbents like Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, come up short. In fact, the liberal-leaning polling forecast page FiveThirtyEight currently predicts a six in seven chance Republicans maintain control with an average pickup of about a seat.

Republican success — defined this cycle as simply surviving — will be largely attributable to the favorable election map and to Gardner and his diligent work. Raising money, coordinating messages, wrangling candidates and conservative contrarians alike, Gardner quietly developed the framework for success.

I’ve known him more than 15 years, before he even held a state House seat, and this isn’t a surprise. Smart, accountable, diligent, and affable, Gardner is the anti-Trump type of Republican.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Of course, Gardner will be tied to Trump and his most virulent remarks and destructive policies. In fact, when it comes to policy and legislation, Gardner has supported the Trump administration.

There have been exceptions, particularly when Gardner defended Colorado’s burgeoning marijuana industry or  called for a tougher response to Russia.

Still, it is hard to imagine Democrats don’t salivate over the picture of Gardner walking off Air Force One with Trump the day Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen became felons.

If you haven’t seen the picture, you won’t need to wait for long. The Senate map for 2020 looks far more generous for Democrats.

And the top target on their list will be Gardner. Only Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will need to run as a Republican in a more Democratic-leaning state; and Collins is the type of elected official who defies party-affiliation in her own state, much as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Viriginia, has this cycle.

In a state where the last three election cycles have gone for Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, it seems likely the Anybody-But-Trump candidate will carry Colorado. Consequently, every image of Gardner within the same frame as Trump should be on an endless loop played by Democrats.

Gardner won’t be a push over. His charisma and determination will go a long way toward helping him retain his seat. His political savvy and instinct should provide multiple avenues for him to distance himself from the toxic top of the ticket.

And he may have most valuable asset of all — good luck. At this point, Colorado Democrats don’t appear to have a top-tier candidate to field a strong campaign.

Most of us may be glad the 2018 election winds up in a few days. But for Cory Gardner, that means the most difficult election of his life is just beginning.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq