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Nicolais: Gardner must hope the new year brings a new Colorado GOP

If Republicans don’t make substantial changes, both Gardner and the party could be swallowed by the rising Democratic “blue ocean”

The New Year cannot arrive fast enough for the Colorado GOP. The big question is whether the new year will usher in a new Republican Party or if we are destined to see more of the same in 2019 and beyond.

Last year, Republican suffering culminated with devastating losses across Colorado on Election Day. The wipeout included losing three statewide constitutional offices and control of the state Senate.

Concurrently, Democrats increased their stranglehold on the governor’s office and state house. Despite the electoral carnage, Republicans have little time to lick wounds before the 2020 campaign. To the contrary, the most important campaign has already begun.

Mario Nicolais

As I see it, Sen. Cory Gardner enters the 2020 race as a very rare incumbent underdog. The Democrats’ sweep underscores nearly two decades of dominance at the top of the ticket.

It has been 16 years since a Republican last won the governor’s seat. Coloradans have doled out electoral wins to Democratic presidential nominees in the last three cycles, including a five-point win for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Four out of five U.S. Senate races have favored Democrats since 2004. That pattern doesn’t make 2018 look so much like a “blue wave” or “blue tsunami” as the rising waters of a “blue ocean” spurred by the political climate change toward a younger, better educated, more diverse electorate.

Gardner’s 2014 victory stands as the lone blemish on Democrats’ otherwise spotless record. You can bet liberals across the state — and across the county — have Nov. 3, 2020, circled in red.

Despite the obvious threat posed by the Democrat bullseye practically emblazoned on Gardner, the primary roadblock could come from his own party.

Colorado Republicans have a notoriously terrible habit of cutting off their nose to spite their face. Or, more directly, cutting off electable candidates deemed insufficiently conservative in favor of bomb-throwers who tend to blow up in general elections. Trust me, I’ve been there.

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If you think Gardner should be immune from such intra-party “electoricide,” think again. Even before Gardner took office, a small, but vocal band of alleged conservatives have called for a primary challenge to Gardner.

Beyond an obvious talent for backbiting, these Republicans have honed an eerie ability to propel fringe nutjobs through Colorado’s caucus and primary system.

The results include 2010 gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes, whose inept performance almost relegated Colorado Republicans to be legally deemed a minor party, and Daryl Glenn, who didn’t clear 43 percent of the vote and ceded a five-point re-election stroll to Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016.

To be clear, if Gardner isn’t the Republican nominee in 2020, then another Democrat will join Bennet as the junior senator from Colorado. Many GOP strategists and spin-masters attributed the 2018 Democratic thumping to Gov.-Elect Jared Polis sprinkling cash across the state by the tens of millions.

If that premise is true, then Gardner’s current stint as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee makes him the only Republican with even a chance to raise enough money to flip Polis’ script. Any other candidate will spend the whole campaign falling further behind, much less leaping ahead.

However, in a party that has traditionally valued purity over actual ability to implement policy, even obvious realities can take a back seat to infantile reactions if Gardner is perceived as straying too far from strict adherence to even the most toxic positions.

That means vocal support for a border wall and government shutdown. More importantly, it means bear-hugging President Donald Trump, despite his putrid polling numbers with the non-Republican primary electorate in Colorado. It’s a Catch-22 imposed by party that refuses to change as the state around it does.

For Gardner’s sake, and the future viability of any Republican candidate, the GOP must make dramatic changes in 2019. Otherwise, they seem destined to be left adrift in a Democratic ocean without any land in sight.

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


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