Margaret Thatcher once said, “standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” Sen. Cory Gardner would do well to heed that advice from the conservative English icon.
To date, Gardner has maintained an unsteady heel-to-toe balance along the yellow line. Unfortunately, two very large trucks have appeared on the horizon headed right at him.
As the impeachment process instigated by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gathers steam and President Donald Trump ramps up his own rhetoric, Gardner will almost certainly be forced into a very uncomfortable choice.
And very little of that decision will have anything to do with the merits of impeachment, but more likely the political optics during a re-election campaign.
Gardner is among the most endangered members of the Senate. Only Sen. Susan Collins from Maine represents a state that voted more overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016. But Collins is an institution in the Pine Tree State, having represented its people for almost a quarter century. Gardner is seeking re-election for the first time.
Against that backdrop, Gardner must decide what his path forward will be over the next year. Does he distance himself from Trump in an effort to hew to the center and capture the votes of unaffiliated voters? Or does he bearhug Trump in a torpedoes-be-damned show of bravado?
Conventional wisdom dictates that Gardner should distance himself from Trump. Trump’s approval rating in Colorado is almost 20 points to the bad; 57% disapprove of the job he is doing versus only 39% who approve.
The numbers get even worse when factoring in the state’s voter registration numbers. Unaffiliated voters disapprove of Trump by a 58-37 margin and represent almost 40% of Colorado’s active voters. In contrast, Republicans account for only 28.5% of active voters in the state.
Nothing would distance Gardner more than a vote to impeach the president. What’s more, Gardner may not be alone in doing so. Led by Sen. Mitt Romney, some Republicans have begun to criticize the president for his interactions with Ukraine and left the door open for impeachment.
The problem with conventional wisdom is that it is, well, conventional.
Given the deep hole Gardner already finds himself in, his best chance for re-election may well be to dig into the foxhole with Trump and pray the president doesn’t frag him.
Recently I received an email from a liberal political operative reacting to my column about the Prohibition on Late-Term Abortions initiative that claimed the “idea that everything needs to appeal to both sides is simply untrue, and in my opinion, tired and tepid. It is an insignificant number of people who fall into your middle, and they are not a critical vote.”
The central theorem — that the unaffiliated “middle” is overstated in registration numbers — is accurate. Most unaffiliated voters have a significant political preference. True centrists represent only a small fraction of the overall unaffiliated vote.
I’m the perfect example, an unaffiliated voter with a conservative bent. I doubt the operative meant it to become campaign advice for Gardner, but if she’s right he’d do well to take it to heart.
Even more important for Gardner, actual centrists may be the most likely to refrain from voting when campaigns turn ugly. That would in turn increase the value of his own base arriving at the polls. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock appeared to ride just that type of strategy to his own reelection this past June.
And no one turns a campaign ugly quite like Trump.
Cynical but effective, subduing overall turnout while firing up his own base may be Gardner’s only path to winning. The effect could be amplified if the eventual Democratic nominee has problems with their own base, just as Hilary Clinton did in 2016.
The road to reelection for Gardner remains a long, uphill road through next November. But if he wants to get to the end, he’ll need to get out of the middle.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq