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Cory Gardner works to improve his image with first TV ad as Democratic rivals draw sharp differences in forum

The Republican senator’s first campaign ad of the 2020 cycle begins airing on television Friday. Democratic primary rivals John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff faced off Thursday night at a streamed forum.

Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before a campaign rally for President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the World Arena in Colorado Springs Thursday, February 20, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Cory Gardner’s first television commercial of his 2020 reelection campaign begins airing Friday, a crucial milestone for the Republican as he works to rehabilitate his image among Colorado voters. 

Gardner is working to sell his accomplishments over six years in the Senate to turn the sour perspective on his job performance by highlighting his work responding to the coronavirus outbreak. The spot touts Gardner’s work to secure COVID-19 tests and protective masks for the state, even pointing out the praise he has received from Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.

“We are going to get through this,” Gardner says at the end of the ad, in a video taken from a TV interview. “We will get through this together.”

The effort to boost the incumbent — who ranks as one of the most vulnerable in the nation — comes as the race between his Democratic rivals intensifies. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff met Thursday evening in their first one-on-one forum — a virtual event hosted on Zoom.

The rules dictated that the candidates could not confront each other, but that didn’t stop Romanoff from drawing a sharp line as he suggested Hickenlooper is not progressive enough when it comes to health care, climate change and the economy.

“The way you win this race and beat Cory Gardner is not by imitating his approach. It is instead by laying out clear differences,” Romanoff said, in a not-so-veiled critique of his rival Hickenlooper, a political centrist.

Hickenlooper highlighted his work to expand health care coverage under the federal health care law and institute new environmental rules to curb methane gas emissions. “What we’ve done in my 20 years in public services is a progressive agenda,” he said.

Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, left, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, face off in a Democratic U.S. Senate primary forum over zoom on Thursday, May 13, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gardner looks to November as Democrats focus on primary in June

The back-and-forth in the forum came one month before Democratic primary ballots hit the mail ahead of the June 30 election. And while the candidates seek to appeal to the party’s base, Gardner is aiming to win over moderate voters with the TV ad focused on his response to the pandemic.

“Gardner has a great story to tell,” said Michael Fortney, a Republican strategist in Colorado who is close to the Gardner campaign.  

The 30-second ad from Gardner doesn’t mention President Donald Trump — or his Democratic opponents — and steers clear of the politics surrounding the response to the pandemic. 

Instead it uses images of coronavirus tests and medical masks paired with news stories that tout Gardner’s connections in Asia from his work as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia. He has said he used those ties to make introductions for the Colorado teams procuring supplies. 

Gardner’s campaign is spending at least $170,000 to run the commercial on four Denver TV stations through May 28, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission. His campaign says the spot will also run in Colorado Springs and Grand Junction television markets, and on streaming services such as Hulu.  

The limited purchase aside, the spending represents the first of millions of dollars in television air time that the campaign will buy over the next several months using its deep financial war chest. Outside political groups will spend even more.

The latest polling in the U.S. Senate race, from Democratic firm Keating Research, showed 53% of likely voters have an unfavorable view of Gardner, his worst numbers since the pollster began testing his favorability in March 2017. 

The poll, released May 5, also showed the share of voters who didn’t have an opinion about Gardner shrinking to 10% from 21% in October. It comes after Democratic-backed groups have spent big money on TV and digital ads in the past year to criticize the Republican.

“Voters are getting more knowledgeable about Cory Gardner and they’re going toward the negative side,” said Chris Keating, the Democratic pollster.

The poll showed Gardner as being favorable among 37% of voters, three percentage points higher than Keating’s last poll in October. But Keating says an eight percentage point jump in the share that have an unfavorable view of him speaks volumes.

“He’s got to try and turn this around. Can he do it? Does he have the resources to do it? Does he have the time? I don’t know,” said Keating, who runs Telluride-based Keating Research. 

Fortney is confident that Gardner can successfully get his message across, even though he  acknowledges that the incumbent has taken blows from the other side. 

“Democrats have spent a lot of money to cast Sen. Gardner in a negative light, despite his actual record,” Fortney said. “Now, Cory is going to set the record straight. Voters are smart and have about five months to get the whole story.”

The ad released Friday begins to tell that tale by highlighting how, through his connections, Gardner says he’s helped secure 100,000 face masks from Taiwan and 100,000 test kits from South Korea for Colorado. 

Gardner is hoping to emphasize his accomplishments and bipartisanship as Democrats work to paint him as a lackey of Trump, whom the senator has endorsed despite the president’s unpopularity in the state. 

One of the video clips shown in the TV spot is Polis praising Gardner at a news conference. “Sen. Cory Gardner, who I talk with multiple times every day, has done everything I’ve asked to help in our response,” the governor said.

Democrats are quick to point out that the reason Colorado needed to secure its own coronavirus supplies is the lack of federal pandemic preparedness. Polis has said he keeps orders for masks and tests secret until they arrive in Colorado because he’s worried about the Trump administration overriding the state’s efforts. 

Polis said a few weeks ago, for instance, that Colorado was working to secure an order for 500 ventilators for Colorado but that the Federal Emergency Management Agency swooped in and purchased them before the state could follow through.

MORE: Here’s how Colorado competes with the world to secure coronavirus tests and supplies

Polis was asked Friday about being included in the ad.

“Now is not the time for politicking,” the governor said. “It’s not the time to talk about political credit or to make political hay over Coloradans who are doing their job.”

Hickenlooper and Romanoff battle on progressive issues in first  forum

The coronavirus barely factored into the 70-minute forum between Hickenlooper and Romanoff hosted by Indivisible NOCO, a group of progressive activists from Northern Colorado. Instead the topics focused on major partisan issues within the Democratic Party.

The candidates received most of the questions ahead of time, and organizers noted from the start that the live-streaming event was not a debate. Both candidates appeared from their homes, wearing dress shirts with no ties, and the video conferencing format led to awkward transitions and blurry images at times. 

One defining exchange came on the topic of providing government-run Medicare coverage to everyone. 

Hickenlooper said he supports universal coverage through a public option, rather than “Medicare for All.” “You’ll end up with an evolution that allows people ultimately to get to a single-payer system, but it will be an evolution not a revolution,” he said.

“I don’t believe this is a time for timidity, and telling folks they have to wait for a slow evolution is heartless,” Romanoff responded, pointing to people who can’t afford coverage and others who go bankrupt from medical bills. He supports Medicare coverage for everyone from age birth, he said.

Later in the forum, Romanoff highlighted his support for the Green New Deal, the congressional proposal to tackle climate change and retool the economy to address inequities. He said it is “the heart of my campaign” and “literally the last best chance to rescue life on Earth.”

The Democratic candidates competing in the June party primary for U.S. Senate are Andrew Romanoff, left, and John Hickenlooper, right. (Colorado Sun photo illustration)

Hickenlooper said he agreed that climate change is “one of the greatest existential threats to humanity in the history of the world” and called for an end to carbon emissions by 2050 and a transition to “a clean economy.”

Without naming him, Romanoff accused Hickenlooper for parroting Republicans attacks on Green New Deal and Medicare for All as “socialism,” which the former governor did during his failed presidential bid. Hickenlooper never engaged with Romanoff during the debate.

Romanoff also expressed support for changing the rules in the U.S. Senate to prohibit filibusters. Hickenlooper called the way the filibuster is used now “a joke,” but he would not commit to the idea, only saying he would listen to the arguments.

Updated at 2:56 p.m. on Friday, May 15: This story has been updated to include comments from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, on being featured in Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s 2020 campaign ad.

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