In 2016, when Donald Trump ran for president, Colorado’s Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner didn’t mince his words about the GOP nominee: “I cannot and will not support someone who brags about degrading and assaulting women.”
Gardner was reacting to an “Access Hollywood” recording of the candidate bragging about sexual assault. He said he didn’t vote for Trump, instead casting a ballot for Mike Pence, now vice president, as a write-in candidate.
Flash forward to today, and Gardner’s political world is now spinning in the opposite direction.
Gardner made an early endorsement of Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. He has a direct line of communication to the president — they speak on the phone fairly regularly. And he has refused to answer questions about whether Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president — which are now the subject of impeachment proceedings — were wrong.
Gardner is mostly mum on how and why his stance on the president has evolved over the past three-plus years, but political math provides important context as to why he may not have a choice, politically speaking, when it comes to his support for Trump.
“I think he can win with Trump,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “I don’t think he can win without Trump.”
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to see a path to victory for Gardner that doesn’t include the president, according to interviews and an analysis by The Colorado Sun of polls and voter statistics. In many ways, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t: Democrats will attack him over his ties to the president regardless and he risks losing Republican votes by splitting from Trump.
And then there’s the problem of unaffiliated voters, an unpredictable group who appear to lean left and don’t like Trump.
Colorado Republicans overwhelmingly view the president in a positive light, believe he’s doing a good job and stand against Democratic efforts in Congress to impeach him. The latest polling, from a Democratic firm in October, showed more than 80% of GOP voters in Colorado favor the president — far higher than Republicans’ 57% favorable view of Gardner.
On impeachment, the same poll showed 90% of Republican voters oppose the inquiry, suggesting the effort to oust Trump has galvanized their support.
“Among Republicans in Colorado, the president is wildly popular,” said David Flaherty, citing recent polling from Magellan Strategies, his Louisville-based Republican political firm. “He has an unbelievable job approval rating. Seven out of 10 say they strongly approve of the job he is doing. Any (Republican) candidate running for office in 2020, especially for federal office, there is no upside to running against the president.”
That’s among the reasons Gardner has been willing to criticize Trump but not divorce him, despite each headline-grabbing controversy. Splitting from Trump has the potential of alienating Republican voters, and Trump has shown a willingness to cast aside GOP lawmakers who cross him.
At the same time, though, Democrats and unaffiliated voters in Colorado overwhelmingly do not like the president, polling shows, and Gardner cannot win reelection with Republican support alone.
In a recent interview, Gardner declined to answer questions about his views on Trump and instead attacked Democrats. He has said, when explaining his support of the president, that he could never support someone who backs policies he said are socialist, including government-run health care or the Green New Deal.
Asked whether there is a red line that Trump could cross that would lead him to abandon his support of the president, Gardner didn’t directly answer.
“Well, I think the same question ought to be asked about socialism and Elizabeth Warren,” Gardner said, referring to the Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts running for president.
Where Gardner sides with and splits from Trump
Gardner didn’t abandon Trump after the president referred to African nations as “shithole countries” or when he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a violent clash between white supremacists and protesters in Virginia.
Gardner didn’t permanently split from the president after revelations that Trump paid off an adult-film actress to conceal an affair and tweeted that four Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back” to the countries they came from. (Three of the four were born in the United States.)
And, in recent months, the state’s junior senator has doubled down on his endorsement of Trump, despite the president’s decision to effectively abandon U.S. support in Syria for Kurdish forces, a longtime U.S. ally. The decision unleashed a Turkish attack on the Kurds and angered lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
In almost all of those cases, Gardner publicly criticized the president’s words and actions. After the “shithole countries” remarks, for instance, Gardner said Trump’s words were “unacceptable.” He also expressed deep concern about pulling out of Syria at the expense of the Kurds. And Gardner was one of the first to speak out about Trump’s response to the situation in Virginia, calling it inadequate on national TV.
But while Gardner’s support may bend at times, it has been unbreakable thus far.
He isn’t the only Senate Republican whose loyalty to the party and the president has been tested. Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had harsh words for then-candidate Trump on the 2016 campaign trail, but they now are among his biggest defenders — and supporters — in Congress. And there are some Republicans in the Senate who never criticize the president.
At the other end of the spectrum is Utah’s Republican U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, who has been called Trump’s most vocal GOP critic in Congress and penned an opinion piece in which he said the president lacked character.
Michele Swers, a government professor at Georgetown University who specializes in congressional politics, said Gardner is somewhere in the middle.
“I find he’s generally quiet,” she said. “He’s not the first ever to come out and stake a position. I think he generally tries to avoid the spotlight. He’s not an outspoken defender, but he’s not an outspoken critic. I see him more trying to avoid these things and trying to focus on particular policy positions that might be popular in Colorado.”
Gardner has been rewarded for his loyalty to the president. Trump has sent several tweets on Gardner’s behalf, saying “he has done a fantastic job representing the people of Colorado.”
In terms of congressional votes, Gardner has sided with the president 89% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, a rate that has him generally in line with the rest of his caucus and which his campaign points out the majority of which are received bipartisan support.
But, still, among those votes are some that have drawn some serious ire from progressive Coloradans, including supporting a plan to dismantle former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and supporting Trump’s use of a national-emergency declaration to secure funds to build a wall along the Mexico border.
And those are the points on which Democrats plan to pounce. They believe the tighter they can tie Gardner to Trump, the more they can tap into the Democratic and unaffiliated voters in Colorado who despise the president.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is running to unseat Gardner next year, is focusing much of his campaign on Gardner’s relationship with Trump, calling him a rubber stamp for the president. Hickenlooper’s campaign video announcing his Senate candidacy even linked Gardner and Trump.
Andrew Romanoff, another Democrat candidate, said Gardner is out of touch and not listening to what Colorado voters want. He has recently attacked the Republican for his lack of public appearances in Colorado, especially town halls. “Cory hasn’t held one in two years,” Romanoff said.
(Gardner’s campaign refutes that he hasn’t held a town hall in years, pointing to events over the summer in Fort Morgan and Eagle County.)
Even Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a friend who has been reluctant to criticize Gardner, has jumped on that train.
“He voted twice with President Trump on Trump’s use of unconstitutional emergency powers to build the wall to take money away from military installations, including bases in the state of Colorado,” Bennet said. “He voted for Donald Trump’s tax cut, which I think was a gift to the wealthiest people in America. And I don’t think those votes will hold up very well.”
Gardner’s math problem is rooted in Colorado’s voter makeup
If Democrats are effective in getting their message across, that could spell serious trouble for Gardner, who is already trying to defy the state’s history and voter makeup to win in 2020.
Of Colorado’s more than 3.9 million registered voters, only 28% are Republicans. Democrats make up 30% of the electorate, and those unaffiliated with any party comprise by far the largest bloc, at 40%.
That means Gardner can’t rely on Republicans alone to send him back to Washington. He needs to find a way to attract moderates and probably some Democrats in 2020.
Trump lost Colorado to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 47% to 42%. In 2018, Democrats dealt Republicans crushing defeats up and down the ballot in what was seen as a statewide rebuke of the president.
And recent public polling doesn’t really have any positive signs for Gardner. A survey in October by Keating Research, a Telluride-based Democratic pollster, showed that Democratic and unaffiliated voters don’t like either Gardner or Trump.
Just 18% of Democrats and 31% of unaffiliated voters said they view Gardner favorably. Gardner’s overall favorability, at 34%, was the lowest it has been in a Keating poll since at least March 2017.
When it comes to Trump, 6% of Democratic voters and 30% of unaffiliateds have a favorable view of the president.
On impeachment, 91% of Democrats and 61% of unaffiliateds said they support the inquiry on whether to oust the president.
“I would have a tough time explaining any path to victory at this point (for Gardner),” said Chris Keating, who leads Telluride-based Keating Research and has worked for Hickenlooper. “I just don’t see a scenario where he wins.”
Keating thinks that the days of Colorado voters splitting their ballots between politicians in different parties are over because of the increase in polarization. “Let’s just take Democrats and Republicans out of the equation because they are just going to cancel each other out,” he said.
That means the race will be won or lost with unaffiliated voters, and Keating’s polling suggests they aren’t likely to support Republicans — or at least a Republican tied to Trump.
The fear among GOP operatives is that if Gardner were to permanently split from the president, Republicans would cast their votes for Trump and then just skip over the U.S. Senate race on the ballot or just not show up on Election Day.
Gardner’s team hopes that there are enough Democrats and unaffiliateds willing to split a ticket because they think he has done a good job representing the state. And there are certainly those who still think that’s possible.
“I still think there is a reservoir of voters who probably are not going to vote for Trump for president but nevertheless will be open to voting for Cory,” said Wadhams, the former GOP chairman.
Gardner also doesn’t think Trump’s popularity in the state is that bad, pointing to the results of the 2016 election in comparison to previous presidential contests in Colorado where Republicans fared worse.
The late U.S. Sen. John McCain, Gardner points out, lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race by 9 percentage points, while Romney lost to Obama in Colorado by 5 percentage points in 2012.
“Donald Trump didn’t lose by 20 points,” Gardner said. “There seems to be a belief that when Democrats win, it’s permanent, when Republicans win, it’s temporary. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in that.”
The view from one voter: “I feel he is a butt-kisser”
The outstanding question is whether there is anything Gardner can do to win over Democratic and unaffiliated voters without alienating his Republican base. And that will probably prove to be the most difficult part of his 2020 campaign.
The big question: Has Gardner tied himself so closely to Trump that unaffiliated voters and Democrats would never back him?
Several Democratic and unaffiliated voters recently told The Sun that Gardner’s ties to Trump are either a nonstarter when it comes to their potential support for him or, at the very least, a major part of why they aren’t backing him now.
Amy Rosevear, an unaffiliated voter from Englewood who leans Democratic but has cast ballots for Republicans in the past, said she doesn’t think Gardner has represented the state well. Gardner’s backing of Trump is a big part of that feeling.
“I think he has aligned himself with Republican leadership, including the president, instead of the people he is supposed to represent,” she said.
Alan Schwartz, another unaffiliated voter who said he leans left but has backed Republicans in the past, made a thumbs-down motion when asked about Gardner. “I feel he is a butt-kisser,” said Schwartz, adding that he was upset about Gardner’s support of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “He says he’ll do one thing and then flip over and go with Trump. I don’t trust him at all.”
Democrats told The Sun a big shift from Gardner is necessary for them to support him, but they are open to the idea if he distances himself from Trump.
“For God’s sake, take your party back. It has been hijacked by a maniac,” said Julie Hildebrand, a Democratic voter who lives in Denver. She said she would consider backing Gardner if he spoke out against Trump.
“I realize the guy is in a bind,” she said. “I probably disagree with him on a number of issues that don’t have anything to do with Trump. But that is a primary concern.”
But Jake Viano, a Trump supporter who served as chair of the Denver GOP from 2017 until earlier this year, said some voters in Republican circles would rethink their support for Gardner if the senator permanently split from the president.
Viano said he would personally be alarmed if Gardner permanently cut ties with the president. “I would make a personal phone call to Cory or his aides and say, ‘What the heck are you doing, senator?’”
Steve Barlock, who served as Trump’s Denver co-chair in 2016, said that “plain and simple, (Gardner) wouldn’t win Colorado” if he abandoned the president.
“I’ve always teased if Cory steps out of line, I may be one of the first to challenge him from the floor (of the state’s Republican assembly),” Barlock said. “I’m not the only one. There are many other people who stress the same thing.”
History shows splitting from Trump is dangerous
Gardner isn’t the only vulnerable Republican trying to walk the tightrope when it comes to Trump.
If you look at Republicans who campaigned on their split from Trump, it’s hard to see the upside. U.S. Reps. Barbara Comstock, of Virginia, and Carlos Curbelo, of Florida, were vocal in their disagreement with the president but ultimately lost their reelection bids last year by wide margins in their swing districts.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, was ousted in 2018 despite trying to distance himself from the president. After serving five terms, he was voted out of office by 11 points and replaced by first-time candidate Jason Crow, a Democrat.
“Voters clearly didn’t give him any credit for his independence,” said Tyler Sandberg, who ran Coffman’s reelection campaign. “Republicans took the lesson from that: Why bother?”
Trump even attacked Coffman after he lost. “Too bad, Mike,” the president said in a news conference after the 2018 elections in which he excoriated Republicans who ran against him.
Coffman also faced a far-right primary challenge as a result of his decision to distance himself from the president, but he was able to fend off the rival. (There were concerns that Gardner could face a primary challenge from the more conservative wing of his party, but so far no credible candidate has emerged.)
But even with Coffman’s efforts to maneuver away from Trump, Democrats were able to successfully pitch voters on the idea that the two were inextricably intertwined. An ad blitz focused on how Coffman voted with Trump 96% of the time. Coffman argued that the statistic wasn’t fair or truly representative of his feelings toward the president.
Conversely, candidates who have tied their fortunes to Trump haven’t always faired that well, either.
Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who once said he was “99% against Trump,” went all in on his support for the president in 2018. Nevertheless, the Nevada senator fell short in his reelection bid by a solid margin. More recently, Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin put all of his eggs in the Trump basket and lost reelection in November.
The candidates in swing areas who have found the sweet spot with Trump are few and far between.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, barely hung onto his seat in a swing district in the San Antonio suburbs in 2018 after taking on Trump over immigration. Now he’s retiring from Congress.
Republican U.S. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, of Pennsylvania, and John Katko, of New York, made it through 2018 in tough districts, relying on their strong brand and local issues. They both have walked a fine line on Trump, careful not to go too far in either their support or rebuke of him.
Swers, the Georgetown professor, said that in the Trump era, candidates who have been successful bucking conventional partisan politics are those who have built a strong personal brand.
“Races are becoming more nationalized,” she said. “People are paying more attention to your stance on the national issues than on the things that you do locally that would help you advertise and create your personal brand. Cory Gardner seems to be going with that strategy, where he can advertise ‘These are the things that I’ve done for Colorado.’”
How Gardner sees a path to victory in 2020
Gardner and his team are aware of the challenges ahead, but they are embracing the battle and don’t necessarily see their fortunes as tied to Trump.
They point to Gardner’s win over Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in 2014, a strong Republican year, as proof that the Eastern Plains native can overcome tough odds.
“I think if you look at my race back in 2014, people said, ‘He can’t win,’” Gardner said. “We won. I think if you look at the successes we’ve had on transportation, on tax cuts, on growing the economy, on protecting the environment — we’ve done a great job of protecting Colorado values and putting Colorado first.”
The senator plans to make a hard sell to voters — likely through television ads — about his successes in Congress, where he has been the sponsor of 8 stand-alone bills that were signed into law, according to his campaign. That number may sound small, but it’s substantially more than those compiled by other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation who have been in Washington much longer.
“I think I’ve passed more legislation than the entire delegation combined at this point,” Gardner said.
Flaherty, the GOP pollster, said he thinks Gardner should keep reiterating that message. “He needs to tell them what his accomplishments have been for Coloradans during his time in the U.S. Senate — while the noise is going on,” he said.
Gardner is also embracing his reputation as a cheerleader for the legal-cannabis industry and trying to pitch voters on his environmental record, even if progressive groups dispute the latter and point out his ties to the fossil-fuel industry. Gardner is boasting about his work to bring the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters to Grand Junction, as well, another talking point that Democrats are working to undermine by noting the limited impact.
(Gardner’s campaign points out that his relationship with Trump helped secure the BLM move.)
Democrats repeatedly point to Gardner’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act as being a mark against his health care record, but Gardner still sees room to tout his work in that area, too. He recently took credit for helping secure Trump administration approval for the state’s new reinsurance program, even though it was a Democratic-led effort at the statehouse.
Beyond his record, Gardner campaign also thinks that if Democrats have a far-left candidate at the top of the ticket as their presidential nominee, voters will look for a moderating voice farther down. He has already begun painting the entire Democratic Party as socialist, including Hickenlooper, whose brief presidential run included a vocal objection to socialism.
“This race is about socialism,” said Gardner, who has even tried to use policies passed by the Democratic-led Colorado legislature to boost his support.
Regardless of the Democrats’ pick for the U.S. Senate race — there are nine people running in the primary — the Gardner campaign will seek to tie them to the party’s presidential nominee and hot-button policies such as Medicare for All, free college tuition, a ban on hydraulic fracturing and the Green New Deal.
If Romanoff, the former Colorado House speaker, is the choice of Democratic primary voters, that line of attack probably will be easier, since he supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and is backing other progressive ideas such as decriminalizing illegal border crossings and removing and replacing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
And, finally, the intensity of the campaign could be on Gardner’s side.
If Hickenlooper is the Democratic nominee, the former governor will be facing the strongest opponent he has ever encountered. There’s also a chance he could come out of the Democratic primary weakened by Romanoff’s attacks.
Hickenlooper, who has long promised not to run negative ads, appeared to acknowledge these two factors at a campaign event in Pitkin County.
“Still never done a negative ad,” he said. “I guarantee you, in this campaign, someone will be doing negative ads on my behalf. And I’m sure by the time they do them, I’ll be welcoming them because sometimes you need to be defended.”
In the end, though, even some in Gardner’s own party openly think 2020 may be an insurmountable challenge, despite his political prowess in sticky situations. Gardner’s trademark smile and outward cheerfulness have gotten him far, but it’s unclear whether they can overcome the headwinds he faces in 2020.
“Cory Gardner is a cunning politician,” said Dan Baer, a Democrat who was in the U.S. Senate race before ending his bid in September, “but this is shaping up to be a year where he could do everything smart politically and still lose — and is likely to still lose.”
Primary voters will choose Gardner’s Democratic opponent in June.