The political arm of the Koch conservative network endorsed U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner on Tuesday, a move designed to emphasize a renewed focus on policy but one that recalls its big-dollar role in the 2014 election.
Americans for Prosperity Action, one of the most prominent conservative groups in the state, touted the Republican lawmaker’s “straight talk” and “principled stands” expressed in his opposition to trade tariffs, assistance to states that legalized marijuana and support for permanent legal status for immigrants brought as children into the country illegally.
“While others retreated to their corners, Gardner acted. That kind of independent judgment has been the hallmark of Gardner’s Senate career, and it’s why we’re endorsing him for reelection,” wrote Jesse Mallory, an adviser to the political committee and the director of Americans for Prosperity in Colorado, in an opinion piece published in The Colorado Sun.
The organization would not offer any details on how much money it would spend in Colorado to help reelect Gardner, particularly after its prominent role in helping him beat Democratic incumbent Mark Udall in the 2014 election.
Americans for Prosperity spokesman John Rich said the organization is “going to engage” but he said it was too early to say how it will seek to influence voters.
The Koch network was one of the largest outside spenders in the race to elect Gardner. AFP spent $1 million and began airing TV ads attacking Udall in March — eight months before the election and just weeks after Gardner entered the race as the party’s pick. The commercials echoed Gardner’s message, prompted Democrats to respond with their own attack ad and helped set the tone for the contest.
Koch network recalibrates political work
The endorsement comes a year before the primary election, in which voters will pick the Democratic challenger from a crowded field, and just as the organization led by billionaire conservative Charles Koch looks to retool its political efforts.
The broader Koch nonprofit network — a major player in Colorado — also renamed itself Stand Together earlier this year as part of a recalibration of its political focus. And in a memo sent earlier this month, AFP announced it would support candidates from any party — including Democrats — in the 2020 election if they supported the organization’s policy goals, such as an overhaul of the criminal justice system, and immigration laws that protect “Dreamers.”
The organization’s endorsements are designed to support candidates “who stick their necks out to lead diverse policy coalitions,” and the op-ed backing Gardner pointed to his work with Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on immigration and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren on marijuana legalization. It also highlighted Gardner as one of the first Republican senators to support a 2018 proposal to limit President Donald Trump’s unilateral authority to impose tariffs on trade.
“It’s not always easy to buck your own party,” Mallory said in an interview. “But he’s been someone we can count on.”
For now, AFP is focused on the Senate race in Colorado, so it’s not clear if they will endorse other candidates or get involved in down-ballot contests, such as state legislative elections.
Alyssa Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Democratic Party, dismissed the endorsement and tied it to Gardner’s support for Trump’s tax overhaul, which the Koch network also supported.
“Of course the Koch brothers and their big money special interest network are coming into Colorado to bail out Cory Gardner,” she said in a statement. “Gardner has become part of the corrupt political system in Washington, voting for huge tax cuts for billionaires instead of doing what’s best for Coloradans.”
On hot seat, Gardner blasts his Democratic rivals
Gardner is considered to be one of the most vulnerable congressional Republicans up for reelection in 2020, in part because of Colorado’s shift toward Democrats in 2018 and Trump’s low approval ratings in the state.
But in an interview Monday after an event in Denver, Gardner brushed off the notion that he is in deep trouble, emphasizing that he was able to defeat an incumbent in 2014 in a tough campaign.
“I think if you look at my race back in 2014 people said, ‘He can’t win.’ We won,” Gardner said. “I think if you look at the success that we’ve had on transportation, on business, on tax cuts, on the economy, on protecting the environment, we have done a great job of protecting Colorado values and putting Colorado first.”
His campaign declined to comment on the AFP endorsement.
Gardner also pointed to Trump’s 2016 margin of defeat in Colorado as evidence his own 2020 chances are better than naysayers think.
“Donald Trump didn’t lose by 20 points. He lost by (five),” Gardner said. “John McCain lost Colorado by eight. Mitt Romney lost by six. I think there seems to be a belief that when Democrats win it’s permanent, when Republicans win it’s temporary. I don’t believe in that.”
He went on to say that Democrats “are supporting these ideas based in socialism.” He didn’t offer any examples about his potential rivals, but pointed to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign as evidence.
When asked whether that attack line would work for him when it didn’t for Republican Walker Stapleton in Colorado’s 2018 governor’s race, the first-term senator pointed to how much Democrat Jared Polis spent on the race.
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