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President Donald Trump listens as Cory Gardner speaks during a campaign rally at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs on Feb. 20, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In the first half of 2017, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner celebrated the confirmation of Colorado native  Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He introduced legislation to move the federal public lands agency to Colorado. And he sponsored a series of bipartisan bills to improve access to banking for the state’s marijuana companies and boost funding for rural hospitals.

The Republican’s poll numbers in the past four years hit their highest points that spring and summer. He topped out at 49% approval — a solid position with a disapproval rating 20 points lower.

Since then, his stock has slid precipitously, according to an analysis of survey data by The Colorado Sun. By 2019, as many Colorado voters approved of his job performance as disapproved, and now polls consistently show him in negative territory.

To political observers, the fall in the Republican senator’s approval since he took office in 2015 is pretty much traced to a single source: President Donald Trump. The controversies that surrounded the White House and the president’s confrontational style didn’t sit well with voters. Six months into his first year, Trump’s rating took the same nose dive and never fully recovered.

“In some ways Sen. Gardner is at the mercy of forces that are beyond his control,” said Ryan Winger, director of data analysis and research for Magellan Strategies, a Republican polling firm in Colorado. “When he was first elected in 2014, it was pre-Trump. It may as well have been 200 years ago in terms of the political environment.”

The new environment showcases the challenge ahead for the first-term senator’s reelection bid as the race started in earnest Wednesday with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’ overwhelming win in the Democratic Party primary.

The Hickenlooper campaign highlighted polling averages showing Gardner trailing his opponent by a larger margin than any of the four other Republican incumbent senators in what the Cook Political Report marks as toss-up races.

And a Public Policy Polling survey released Wednesday shows Hickenlooper leading Gardner 51% to 40%. The Democratic firm found 9% were undecided in the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. The survey was paid for by End Citizens United and Let America Vote, groups that endorsed Hickenlooper in April.

The 11-point deficit for the Republican incumbent actually ties his best showing since August 2019, according to The Sun’s review of polling. In the hypothetical matchups, Gardner trailed Hickenlooper by double digits in six polls released between August 2019 and this week. 

“It’s just kind of amazing how identical things are to when we first polled this race when Republicans were trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act at this time three years ago,” said Tom Jensen, the director at Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based firm with a national footprint. “The state of things got baked in a long time ago.”

Big money TV ads hurt Gardner — and Hickenlooper’s ratings, too

In an interview Wednesday, Gardner blamed his poor approval ratings on Democrats and dark-money aligned organizations that have spent “millions and millions and millions of dollars on negative ads and negative attacks.” He has allied himself closely with Trump but declined to discuss whether the president has helped or hurt his image.

“I think if you look at what we’ve accomplished in the Senate, the people of Colorado are going to be supportive of that,” he said, noting the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters relocating to Grand Junction and other federal spending bills that benefited the state.

Democratic-aligned nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors began running television ads critical of Gardner in October 2019 and more are expected to saturate the airwaves in the next four months.

But the same attacks are coming for Hickenlooper, too. And Gardner believes voters will sour on Hickenlooper once they learn more about him. 

Gardner pointed to the state ethics commission’s determination that the Democrat violated the state’s constitutional gift ban for accepting corporate-paid travel and the contempt citation for refusing to heed a subpoena and court order to testify. “Coloradans will care very much that one candidate believes he doesn’t have to comply with the law,” Gardner said.

Already, Hickenlooper’s numbers are showing fatigue amid the onslaught of criticism from his Democratic rival, millions in attack ads from Republicans and his own mistakes in the campaign. 

When he left office in early 2019, The Sun’s analysis showed his approval rating at 50% and disapproval closer to 30%. The latest survey from a Democratic pollster in May put his approval at 44% and disapproval at 39%, a significant shift.

Hickenlooper’s campaign manager M.E. Smith said the candidate’s strong primary victory shows the negative attacks won’t work. She wrote in a memo to supporters that voters “know him and trust that he will be an independent voice for Colorado who can change Washington and bring people together to get things done.”

Hickenlooper’s approval rating hit a recent high point in early 2017 at 61% while his disapproval was 28%. And Chris Keating, a top Democratic pollster and Hickenlooper supporter, said the candidate’s numbers historically show better than Gardner. “Hickenlooper, in general, has been more favorable than unfavorable,” he said. “He was a very well-liked governor.”

U.S. Sentate candidate John Hickenlooper, center, speaks with supporters at a forum in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gardner’s allies expect a close race and believe the margin is closing

The rough Democratic primary battle makes Gardner’s camp more optimistic than ever with its $10 million war chest at the ready. “We’ve seen how bad of a candidate (Hickenlooper) is,” said Greg Brophy, a former Republican state lawmaker and top Gardner supporter. “And we’ve seen how good of a candidate Gardner is — and how well-oiled that machine is going to be.”

In a memo issued this week to his top donors, Gardner campaign manager Chris Hansen said he expects it to be a single-digit race. “Independents decide elections in Colorado – they always have and always will,” he wrote. “The Gardner team ran the race we needed to win enough independents in 2014, and we will run the race we need to win in 2020.”

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Likewise, outside political allies are expecting a battle much like the close 2014 race where Gardner won by 1.9 percentage points. 

Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity and a senior adviser to the conservative group’s campaign arm, went door-to-door canvassing in the Denver area this week. He said he’s seen Gardner’s numbers improve in recent weeks as the campaign began running ads about his accomplishments in the Senate.

The group said it plans to spend more than $1 million dollars to help Gardner turn out suburban voters. “I do think that he’s in a better place now than he was in the early spring,” Phillips said in an interview. “But he would still be an underdog — and that’s exactly where he was in 2014.”

But one major factor that will determine whether Gardner’s numbers improve ahead of November is the top of the ticket. 

Trump remains deeply unpopular in Colorado and lost the state by 5 percentage points in 2016. Republican and Democratic pollsters in Colorado agree that it’s a tough year for Republicans to run on the same ticket as him.

“To come from behind you need to be liked by those who know you, which is only Cory’s second biggest problem to the fact that he’s tied to Trump, who has even higher unfavorables than he does,” Keating said.

Updated 8 a.m. July 2, 2020: This story was updated to add both of Tim Phillips roles with Americans for Prosperity and its related campaign organization.

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.