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From left: Former Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. (Colorado Sun file photos)

Cory Gardner is touting his legislative accomplishments in the U.S. Senate and his work responding to the coronavirus crisis. He is getting praise from President Donald Trump and big financial help from national Republicans. And the GOP lawmaker from Yuma is relentlessly attacking his Democratic opponent, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for violating the state’s ethics laws for public officials.

And yet, Gardner is still behind in his reelection bid a week before ballots hit the mail. 

Every poll since October 2019 shows him trailing Hickenlooper, and the closest he’s looked is a 5 percentage point loss. Hickenlooper holds an average 7.8 percentage point lead over Gardner.

MORE: How Cory Gardner and John Hickenlooper are polling in the 2020 U.S. Senate election

If Gardner wants to keep his job, he must significantly shift the trajectory of the race in the next month, starting with the contest’s first debate Friday. The Republican’s campaign and his allies see the debates as one of their best chances to close the gap — an opportunity to trip up Hickenlooper and show he’s the wrong fit for a U.S. Senate seat. 

“I think they are critical,” said Kelly Maher, a Republican consultant.

The two candidates — who are running tightly controlled campaigns with limited in-person voter interactions because of COVID-19 — will confront plenty of unanswered questions heading into the home stretch, including about the future of the U.S. Supreme Court, the coronavirus crisis and allegiance to their respective political parties.

John Hickenlooper and Cory Gardner have both leveraged the economic success of Colorado on the campaign trail. (Hickenlooper photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons; Gardner photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

But the pressure is most felt by the incumbent. Gardner’s seat is considered one of the most vulnerable for Republicans in the 2020 election, and top political prognosticators agree that it either leans Democratic, or is at best a toss up.

Veteran Republican strategists are becoming nervous about Gardner’s reelection chances as the clock ticks closer to Election Day. And the numbers for President Donald Trump, whom Gardner has endorsed, remain negative in Colorado, where he is deeply unpopular. 

MORE: Colorado doesn’t appear to be a presidential swing state in 2020. That could spell big trouble for Cory Gardner.

“The headwinds,” said Allen Fuller, a Republican strategist in Colorado, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Gardner and his backers believe they still have time to move the needle and claim victory. Even those who look warily at his campaign say that if anyone can pull off an upset, it’s Gardner.

In addition to showing a clear contrast to Hickenlooper in the debates, the campaign says its strategy, currently playing out in television and online advertising, to cast Hickenlooper as corrupt has worked and helped move the race to within striking distance. They plan to stay the course, even if public polling shows the contest remains stalled with Hickenlooper in the lead.

“This was always going to be a close fight until the end,” said Casey Contres, Gardner’s campaign manager, in a written statement. 

Hickenlooper’s campaign strategy is a similar one of staying on track. “It’s going to be pretty much what we’ve done for the last 13 months,” said Ammar Moussa, a Hickenlooper spokesman. “We are staring down the barrel of this horrible crisis that has been made worse by Donald Trump’s negligence and enabled by Cory Gardner, and more than ever, Washington needs a problem-solver to get it through this crisis.”

The debates

The first debate Friday, hosted by The Pueblo Chieftain newspaper and sponsored by AARP, will set the tone for the other three debates and the final push to Election Day. 

The most notable contrast expected to emerge, according to political observers from both parties, is the differing personalities and qualifications of the candidates. 

Gardner is considered the more effective debater, well known for his ability to sidestep tough questions and stick to his talking points. Hickenlooper, meanwhile, has struggled at times to communicate a clear, succinct message and he is prone to misspeaking and contradicting himself on issues, as he did a number of times in Democratic primary debates in June.

Republicans see an opportunity to take the offensive in the debates if the Democratic challenger stumbles again. Hickenlooper “has the worst case of foot-in-mouth disease of any politician I’ve ever seen,” said Fuller, who worked on the Republican gubernatorial campaign against him in 2014.

Back then, Fuller said, the campaign’s debate strategy was designed to keep Hickenlooper talking, because “if he’s talking, he’s explaining and it’s probably going to veer into some unknown territory.”

Gardner’s supporters see the debates as the Republican’s best chance to show Colorado voters how much he contrasts with Hickenlooper in leadership style and the issues. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner speaks at a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At the Club 20 political event in Grand Junction a few weeks ago, Gardner offered a preview of his debate message. He made the case that he is the guy who gets things done while Hickenlooper entered the race after saying he didn’t even want to be a senator. 

“Gardner’s job is to make Hickenlooper not acceptable as an alternative,” said Lori Weigel, a Republican pollster in Colorado.

Gardner has also criticized Hickenlooper’s embrace, albeit tentative at times, of policies put forward by far-left members of the Democratic Party and pointed to the former governor’s shifting stance on oil and gas, suggesting it could hurt the state’s industry. 

MORE: John Hickenlooper’s conflicting record and rhetoric on fracking a point of dispute in U.S. Senate race

GOP operatives are looking for Hickenlooper to make a mistake that can be used in television commercials in the final weeks before Election Day, just as they did in 2014 against U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.

“I think the thing for Cory is just that people need to continuously be reminded of where he has really delivered for the people of Colorado,” said Maher, the GOP consultant. “He’s trying to put that out there. … But the reality is when you have the debate you have the opportunity to talk directly to the people.” 

For Hickenlooper, his goal is to tie Gardner to Trump as often and as tightly as possible. And his supporters want the Democrat to stand his ground and remind voters in the final weeks about his record as governor.

His allies acknowledge that debates are not his strong suit, but Alan Salazar, a former Hickenlooper political strategist, said the candidate should still stick to his personality. Vintage Hickenlooper, he argues, is the best path.

“Honest, direct and a little of the self-deprecation,” Salazar said. “I don’t think John should be anything but himself.”

Outgoing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper jokes with his wife, Robin, and son, Teddy, before the inauguration of Gov. Jared Polis at the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, January 8, 2019. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Gena Ozols, a Democratic strategist and member of the Hickenlooper campaign’s Women’s Leadership Council, said she expects the candidate to do better than the primary debates earlier this year, where he appeared shaken. She’s noticed a difference as the candidate hit the campaign trail in recent weeks.

“What we are seeing is they are unshook, and he is coming out of that,” she said. “And we are seeing John for who he is. And I hope that’s exactly who we see during the debate: An honest, affable guy who is doing his best to be upfront about things.”

His Democratic supporters also believe Hickenlooper must communicate a clear vision of what he would do if elected, as a way to contrast against what they see as a stalemate in Washington on key issues such as coronavirus aid and climate change. 

“We’ve seen inaction on one side from Cory,” said Alice Madden, a former Democratic lawmaker and U.S. Senate candidate, “so I think John talking about what he most wants to get done would be incredibly helpful to the cause.”

Ethics violations, U.S. Supreme Court also big debate focus

Beyond the battle of the personalities, Hickenlooper’s ethics violations and Republicans’ hasty efforts to fill the vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat are expected to take center stage at the debates.

Democrats expect Gardner to boast about his own record but also misconstrue his positions on issues like health care, all the while going on the attack against Hickenlooper, especially concerning the two ethics violations handed down against the governor earlier this year. How Hickenlooper explains the ethics situation and responds to the attacks will speak volumes, observers said.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper turns in his signatures to secure his spot in the 2020 U.S. Senate Democratic primary on Feb. 19, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Salazar, who worked for Hickenlooper during his time as governor, argued that Gardner’s negative approach in the campaign will eventually sour voters. “I think John should let Cory Gardner be as mean and nasty as he’s capable of being,” Salazar said. “And that’s not going to show well.” 

Hickenlooper is expected to go on the offensive against Gardner for reversing his stance on whether to replace a U.S. Supreme Court justice in a presidential election year. In 2016, Gardner supported blocking President Barack Obama’s choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia because of the election nine months away. But after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September, Gardner quickly said he would vote to confirm a “qualified” nominee.

Gardner met Tuesday with Trump’s pick to replace Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett. In a statement, he said she is “highly qualified.” He also voted to place her on the federal bench, for a different role, in 2017.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, left, meets with Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. (Handout)

Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election prognosticator that recently moved Colorado’s Senate race into the “leans Democrat” column from “toss up,” sees Gardner’s support for replacing Ginsburg before a new president is sworn in as perilous. Jessica Taylor, the Senate editor for Cook Political Report, said the decision may well “seal his fate.”

MORE: Cory Gardner says he will vote to confirm a “qualified” replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

There are also looming questions for Hickenlooper about the Supreme Court. On the presidential campaign trail, he said he was open to increasing the size of the court if it becomes too conservative. He also said he wanted to implement a rule about how quickly the Senate has to consider a nominee. 

When asked by The Colorado Sun last week about those positions, however, he declined to answer.

MORE: Here’s what John Hickenlooper thinks about a U.S. Supreme Court expansion and what makes a good justice 

In the end, the question remains open about whether the debates will change the game.

“Historically, you don’t see a lot of changes coming out of debates, and particularly this election cycle people seem very locked into their choices,” said Craig Hughes, a Democratic consultant working with the Senate Majority PAC, a political committee working to elect Hickenlooper. “It will be hard for Gardner to break out given his voting record for Trump and the embrace they have had for each other. A debate performance just doesn’t change that.”

Paul Teske, the public affairs dean of the University of Colorado Denver, agreed that the political landscape appears set. “Just like the presidential race, my sense is it’s fairly baked in.’ 

“I feel like there’s limited range for both of them, maybe some room at the margins to change minds,” he added.

The television war 

Beyond the debates, the airwaves war between the two candidates continues to escalate as the election approaches. 

So far this year, more than $54 million has been spent or reserved by the candidates and outside groups on the race. The spending is fairly evenly split between supporting and opposing the two candidates.

But the messages have begun to shift. Gardner is still attacking Hickenlooper over his ethics violations, but he’s now started to directly pitch voters on being the safer candidate to represent them in Congress.

“You and I may not always agree,” he says in one TV ad. “But you know I honestly work hard for Colorado.” In another ad, Gardner is labeled as “bipartisan” and “effective.”

YouTube video

The change is notable because Gardner’s campaign strategy for weeks has been to erode the support Hickenlooper built as a two-term Denver mayor and two-term governor. Even with Hickenlooper’s image ratings down, Gardner is still trailing in the head-to-head contest. 

“Even if they don’t like (Hickenlooper) as much as they used to, he’s quite clearly the better alternative,” said Andrew Baumann, senior vice president for Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and political strategy firm.

Hickenlooper, meanwhile, has doubled down from relentlessly attacking Gardner’s support for Trump to also criticizing specific aspects of his recent congressional record. In a new TV commercial, Hickenlooper stands between two cardboard cutouts of Gardner on a debate stage and highlights the senator’s conflicting record on health care, the environment and Trump.

“This Cory voted to roll back protections for air and water,” Hickenlooper says, pointing to one cardboard cutout, “but he’s posing as an environmentalist,” he says while gesturing to the other.

YouTube video

Gardner’s record of passing legislation and working across party lines is a key pillar of his reelection campaign strategy as the senator tries to court unaffiliated voters. David Flaherty, who leads the Republican-leaning polling firm Magellan Strategies, said Hickenlooper’s latest ads are meant to cut Gardner’s efforts off at the knees and serve as a closing argument.

“He’s attacking the foundation of what Cory is trying to make himself to be,” Flaherty said. “The contradictions are so easy for voters to understand.”

EARLIER: Does Cory Gardner have a breaking point when it comes to Trump? The political climate suggests he better not.

Flaherty said unaffiliated voters don’t like any whiff of partisanship, which could make Hickenlooper’s ads potent. He said Gardner’s change of heart on the Supreme Court is especially clear-cut and damning. 

Gardner’s campaign argues the race is still competitive by pointing to the ongoing spending by Democratic groups supporting Hickenlooper. This week alone, Rocky Mountain Values dropped $1.5 million in Colorado opposing Gardner, and Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund added another $1 million. 

Another sign Gardner’s tactics may be working: Hickenlooper also has run his first-ever negative ads in this campaign. He also has responded to attacks on his character with an ad highlighting how he helped one of his then-employees at Wynkoop Brewing through a medical crisis. 

Combined, some are still feeling very confident about Gardner’s chances. 

“I’m more bullish,” said Greg Brophy, a former Republican state senator who is one of Gardner’s biggest cheerleaders, of the senator’s reelection chances. 

But Brophy, like other Republicans, is also aware that the political headwinds may be too much for Gardner in 2020, just as they were for many in the GOP two years ago when the party suffered blistering defeats in Colorado. He could run a flawless race and still lose. 

“The obvious weak spot is: ‘What if 2020 is a replay of 2018?’” Brophy said. “It’s not going to be. But if it is, it won’t matter that Cory is the best Republican candidate in the history of Colorado.”

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.  

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

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....