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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)

The 2020 campaign starts today, and it doesn’t look good for Cory Gardner.

The first-term Republican senator is seeking re-election the same year as President Donald Trump in a state that Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points.

His seat is one of two in the nation most likely to flip to Democrats, and a new poll shows his image among Colorado voters is divided, at best.

Gardner is viewed unfavorably by 43 percent of likely 2018 voters in Colorado, according to a new poll from Keating Research, a Democratic firm, compared to 42 percent favorable.

The numbers represent a statistical tie with only 16 percent undecided. But the unaffiliated voters that decide elections in Colorado are more definitive — 43 percent view him unfavorable compared to 36 percent favorable. The poll’s margin of error is 4.3 percentage points.

“Everybody knows that that is not an ideal spot to be,” said Greg Brophy, a Republican former lawmaker and prominent Gardner ally.

It’s early, sure. But here’s a look at five factors that are expected to define Gardner’s re-election bid — and influence whether he can win in 2020:

First, Gardner must secure support within his own party

A primary challenge is possible, and it could complicate his campaign.

In 2014, Gardner’s entry into the U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Mark Udall essentially cleared the Republican field. The move allowed him to save campaign cash, unite his party and avoid partisan issues ahead of the fall campaign.

It may not prove the same in 2020 given Gardner’s moderate actions and efforts to push back against Trump, which frustrate the core of the Republican Party. He doesn’t energize the base like his outspoken colleague U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. The recent poll showed 16 percent of his own party view him unfavorably.

The same happened this year to U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who faced a challenge from his political right in the primary and had to work to win his party’s nomination in the 6th Congressional District.

The Democratic bullseye is directly on Gardner

On the other side, Democrats are revved up to defeat Gardner. His upset victory in 2014 left critics with a Rocky Mountain-sized political grudge, and he’s endured constant pressure from liberal activists for the past four years. The question is whether that energy will persist through 2020.

One motivating factor: Gardner’s seat is a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats and may factor into control of the U.S. Senate. Thirty-four U.S. senators face re-election in 2020, but only two Republicans represent states that went Democratic in 2016 — Gardner and Maine’s Susan Collins.

What it means is that Colorado will become a national target for Democrats, who will flood the state with money and organizing support to help Gardner’s opponent.

But Gardner may have the firepower to respond. He spent the past two years as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, leading the party’s successful effort to retain the chamber in the 2018 election. The job is primarily fundraising for colleagues, and it allowed him to tap into a national network of donors that will prove helpful for his own bid in 2020. He’s also an impressive campaigner who maintains his message, even if it means sidestepping tough questions.

“Coloradans expect their elected officials to be optimistic, effective and bipartisan and that’s exactly who and what Cory is,” said Alex Siciliano, a Gardner spokesman. “He fights for people in every nook and cranny of Colorado and looks forward to continuing to meet with constituents about the work that needs to be done to keep moving Colorado forward.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

More than anything, the 2020 election is about Trump

And that’s not what Gardner wants to talk about.

“I think his entire campaign hinges on Donald Trump,” said Steve Welchert, a Democratic strategist. “If Donald Trump runs for re-election and (Gardner) has to campaign with Donald Trump and respond to what Donald Trump says every day, that’s a (expletive) nightmare.”

Trump’s approval rating in Colorado is negative, according Magellan Strategies, a Republican firm that conducted a poll in early October. The survey found 50 percent disapproved of Trump’s performance and 44 percent approved. His image rating is even worse with 59 percent viewing him unfavorably, according to the Keating Research poll, compared to 39 percent unfavorable.

Gardner is “already not that well-liked, and if he’s tied to Trump … he’s in serious trouble,” said Chris Keating, the Democratic pollster.

Trump’s unfavorable rating is far worse than President Barack Obama’s image in 2014, when Gardner won his race. And Republicans acknowledge that a presidential year will skew the political math to make it tougher.

All this may change, but even Republicans acknowledge it’s a complication for re-election.

“Donald Trump is going to be the candidate,” said Steve House, the former state GOP chairman. “Cory is going to have a big challenge, but Cory Gardner is a tremendous political candidate.”

On the other side, a big unknown is the Democratic rival to Trump and whether that candidate creates baggage for the party’s nominee to challenge Gardner. And a Democratic-led Congress — and governor — may provide a convenient foil for Republicans to use.

MORE: Cory Gardner is in charge of keeping the Republican U.S. Senate majority. Here’s how the job could impact his future.

Instead of Trump, Gardner wants to talk about his bipartisan record

Gardner can point to areas where he deviated from the White House, showing an independence from Trump that will help him with uncommitted voters, even if it hurts him with his party base.

For instance, he supported a bipartisan immigration measure to prevent young immigrants in the country illegally from being deported, even though it was defeated by his own Republican majority. His office touted two reports recognizing him for bipartisanship earlier this year, and in Washington he’s viewed as a centrist politician.

“I just make it a goal every day to work with not only Sen. Bennet but my colleagues across the aisle — whether it’s marijuana policy, whether its student loan policy — and that’s really what it’s about,” Gardner said in a recent interview. “At the the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the same thing for our country. They have different ideas on how to get there but we can do it together.”

Gardner frequently talks about his work with Colorado’s Democratic senator, Michael Bennet. And he’s likely to reference Bennet in the 2020 campaign, just as Bennet referenced Gardner in a re-election TV ad from 2016.

The wildcard is who Democrats pick to challenge Gardner

The opportunity to challenge Gardner may draw a large Democratic field. So far, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2018, has expressed interest. And others are suggesting Gov. John Hickenlooper — who leaves office in January with polls showing a 2-to-1 favorability ratio — could be a formidable contender if his presidential ambitions fizzle.

Welchert, the Democratic strategist, said the Trump factor will outweigh any questions about the party’s nominee. “We could run Santa Claus, it wouldn’t matter,” he said. “Our nominee does matter but it’s not the big calculus in the game.”

However, a messy Democratic primary that forces candidates to the political left could hurt their chances. Brophy, the Gardner ally, expects Democrats to pick a candidate who aligns with former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and moves out of the political mainstream.

“I still like Cory’s chances no matter what,” Brophy said. “He’s a great candidate who has a really good record to run on. Political races like this come down to a choice about two people. So it’s not a theoretical choice.”


    John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.