Republicans in Colorado are becoming increasingly nervous about U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s reelection odds as President Donald Trump’s poll numbers crater in the state and across the nation.
That’s because Gardner’s reelection strategy hinges on his ability to win support from voters unwilling to back the president but who are enamored enough with the Republican senator’s record to give him a second term. And the worse Trump does in the state, the harder that becomes.
An average of the latest public polling in Colorado shows Trump down by 14.5 percentage points to former Vice President Joe Biden, according to the political data site FiveThirtyEight. Republican operatives say that margin is far too large for Gardner to bridge with so-called split-ticket voters who back both him and Biden.
Anything more than a 10 percentage point split between Trump and Biden could spell disaster.
“Jesus Christ himself couldn’t overperform Trump by double digits,” said Tyler Sandberg, a Republican operative.
But the Trump campaign isn’t investing in Colorado. Unlike in other states, Trump hasn’t reserved television ad time, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of Federal Communications Commission records. Major national groups that are backing the president’s reelection bid haven’t opened their purse strings for Colorado either.
It’s a sign that Colorado has lost its status as a presidential battleground state. And with Trump’s campaign needing to direct resources to shore up support in other parts of the country, there are Republican anxieties about whether Trump will be willing or able to spend in Colorado to close the gap enough to give Gardner a chance.
Other down-ballot Republicans also could suffer if the Trump campaign can’t keep the election in Colorado within striking distance, leading to another difficult election year after the disastrous 2018 cycle.
“If the campaign was serious about winning this state, I think we would see some ads going,” said David Flaherty, who runs the Republican polling firm Magellan Strategies, which is based in Louisville.
Jefferson Thomas, the Trump campaign’s Colorado director, touted the party’s voter outreach operation in the state. But even he acknowledges the deficit the campaign faces. Right now, he said, the goal is to keep the race close.
“That puts us in position to have a discussion with President Trump’s campaign (and) the RNC about where resources will be allocated to attain victory,” he said.
Republicans have also sent surrogates to Colorado to help Gardner’s campaign. But the outlook for the party’s presidential hopes in the state is dim.
“If Trump loses by a big enough margin, it will make it impossible for Cory to win,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chair of the Colorado GOP and a top Gardner supporter. “I’m not sure what that number is, but that’s the brutal truth.”
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Wadhams is among the most adamant that Gardner can win over voters who reject Trump even though the senator has inextricably tied himself to the president. Wadhams and other GOP strategists point to Coloradans’ historic willingness to vote for candidates from both parties in the same election year as proof that it can happen again. Gardner’s campaign is actively courting these split-ticket voters with ads touting his accomplishments.
A Republican candidate hasn’t won the presidential vote in Colorado since 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected. In fact, voters have elected just one GOP candidate — University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl — to statewide office in Colorado since the 2014 election cycle. And voter registration numbers show registered Republicans are now the smallest slice of the three big pieces of Colorado’s voter registration pie that includes Democrats and unaffiliateds.
Unaffiliated voters, who make up the state’s largest voting bloc, tend to lean Democratic.
Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election-predicting arm of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, rates Colorado as being “likely Democratic” in the presidential race. It rates the state “leans Democratic” in the U.S. Senate race, where Gardner faces former Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“It’s not as blue as a Massachusetts or New York, but strategically, if I were a Republican running a national campaign, I wouldn’t really put much effort into Colorado, honestly,” said Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “If this was a competitive national environment and the Trump campaign wanted to maybe try to expand their map from 2016, Colorado may be a target that they would look at. But as it is now, I think the Trump campaign is going to have a hard enough time shoring up states that they won in (2016).”
Of the roughly $100 million that the Trump campaign has reserved in television and radio ad time heading into November, according to AdAge, none of it is in Colorado. Instead, that money is flowing into states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona, which are crucial to Trump’s path toward a second term.
Even states like Texas, Iowa, Kansas and Georgia are now looking precarious for the president, according to polls, meaning he may have to direct resources in their direction. Pundits have pointed to Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis as a main driver of his sliding numbers.
America First Policies, a dark-money nonprofit supporting Trump, spent less than $10,000 on TV ads supporting the president in Colorado in July. That’s compared to the millions spent by Republican outside groups so far in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race.
Conversely, in another sign Colorado isn’t a focus state, Biden’s campaign and its backers aren’t really spending on TV in Colorado. The American Federation of Teachers, an anti-Trump education group, spent about $106,000 from late June through late July on TV ads opposing the president in Colorado.
Trump’s most ardent supporters in Colorado, however, are shrugging off the bad news and bad signs.
“I think Colorado is a much more competitive state than any of the numbers show at this point,” U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Windsor Republican and chairman of the Colorado GOP, said in an interview with Newsmax.
Republicans, who argue Trump has a better chance than what’s shown on paper, point to the fact Trump lost Colorado to Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points in 2016 while previous GOP presidential candidates fell by larger margins in the state.
“Donald Trump didn’t lose by 20 points,” Gardner told The Sun last year.
Robert Blaha, a Colorado Springs businessman and Trump ally, told The Sun that he thinks poll numbers will shift dramatically as Election Day nears.
“I think we’re going to see the president back here,” he said. “We’re going to see the campaign invest some money here.”
As for Gardner? “I think Cory is fine right now,” Blaha said.
Republicans also point to their investments in Colorado outside of TV ad spending, including dozens of staffers who are behind a door-knocking and voter-contact effort, as proof they are taking the state seriously.
“Trump Victory continues to lead an unprecedented grassroots effort to re-elect President Trump and Cory Gardner as our team has officially marked 2 million voter contacts,” said Andres Malave, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee in Colorado. “Enthusiasm is sky high.”
The Republican National Committee has given the Colorado GOP about $700,000. The Republican parties in Louisiana, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin and North Carolina have all each received more than double that amount, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
There are other signs that national Republicans want to keep Colorado competitive. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, made a swing through the state last week to tout the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act at Rocky Mountain National Park and appear at an event with Gardner at a childcare center in Greenwood Village.
At the childcare center, Ivanka Trump touted the Trump administration’s work to expand the federal child tax credit. “You have been a real force in the U.S. Senate for these issues,” she told Gardner.
Gardner is polling better than Trump in Colorado. An average of public polling by The Sun shows him about 10 percentage points down to Hickenlooper as the campaign enters its final 100 days. However a poll released Tuesday by Morning Consult showed him closing the gap and down only 6 percentage points.
Gardner narrowly won in 2014 by beating Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in a race that was largely seen as a referendum on then-President Barack Obama. Hickenlooper won a second term as governor that year, though by a small margin, in a textbook sign of ticket splitting.
But since then, in the Trump era, ticket-splitting in Colorado has been more rare.
Republican Mike Coffman was reelected to his 6th Congressional District seat in 2016 despite the district backing Clinton by a wide margin. He also won in 2012 despite the district backing Obama.
In 2018, however, Coffman was easily removed from office by now-U.S. Rep. Jason Crow. Coffman is now Aurora’s mayor.
Republicans lost every single statewide race in 2018, as well as their majority in the Colorado Senate.
“What happens at the federal level dramatically impacts what happens at the state level,” said Joe Miklosi, a Democrat and former state lawmaker who lost to Coffman in 2012. “I take the blame for my 2-point loss, but in a close race every factor is important. I think that was one. If Obama’s margin of victory was better, that would have helped me.”
Democrat Ken Salazar won election to the U.S. Senate in 2004 despite President George W. Bush taking Colorado — another example of ticket splitting in the state.
But Salazar thinks persuading voters to split their ticket requires a streak of independence. That was a key component to Coffman’s successful campaigns up until 2018, when the five-term congressman’s work to brand himself as independent of national politics wasn’t enough to escape Trump’s shadow.
“Ticket splitting does happen,” said Salazar, who is supporting Hickenlooper’s campaign. “The reality today, though, in 2020, is that the positions between Donald Trump and Cory Gardner are essentially one in the same. They’re two peas in one pod. If there were marked differences between Cory Gardner and Donald Trump, you could see that kind of ticket splitting going on. But, here, there is no difference. A vote for Cory Gardner is a vote for Donald Trump.”
Republicans have long worried that Gardner could run a flawless 2020 campaign and still come up short because of the political tides working against him.
Colorado Sun staff writer John Frank and correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.