For those who have been wondering when or if Cory Gardner would try to put some distance between himself and his pal Donald Trump, now we know.

In the first live, televised, English-language Senate debate Friday night between Gardner and John Hickenlooper, Gardner carefully made a small show of independence. If Gardner’s attempt at separation may not have met social-distancing protocol, it wasn’t a mask-free, Rose Garden, full-on embrace either.

Gardner must have seen the SurveyUSA poll released Friday, sponsored by 9News and Colorado Politics, which had Gardner trailing Hickenlooper by nine points as the race moves into the home stretch. Not coincidentally, in the same poll, Trump was trailing Joe Biden in Colorado by 10 points. You may spot a trend there.

And so, when the debate opened with Gardner being asked whether he was proud of the job Trump and Senate Republicans have done on the coronavirus. Garder said, “This isn’t a question of pride. This is a question of getting through this together.” Then he touted his work with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, which seemed, um, not exactly the question.

Mike Littwin

In other words, no, he wasn’t proud of Trump’s disastrous response to COVID because who could be? If I were Gardner, I wouldn’t go within an Eastern Plains country mile of the mask-free White House, which has become, to the nation’s embarrassment, a COVID-19 hotspot. It’s so embarrassing, and dangerous, that even Mitch McConnell says he won’t go near the place because he has no faith in the White House’s COVID standards. 

Asked if he were proud to support Trump — was it GOP pride week? — Gardner said he was “proud of the work we’ve done together.” You know, for Colorado, not so much for the nation. And then he went on and on about the Great American Outdoors Act, which was apparently a gift from McConnell and Trump so Gardner and other vulnerable Western Republicans would have something to brag about. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly, 73-25, but with all 25 opposing votes coming from, yes, Republicans.

Asked again, this time by Hickenlooper, Gardner tried this: “I’m not going to support a socialist, so of course I’m proud.” As if Joe Biden was a socialist. As if business-friendly, fracking-fluid-drinking John Hickenlooper, of all people, was a socialist.

Gardner announced his support for Trump in 2019, apparently hoping that an early endorsement might get the whole sordid business out of the way. He is one of two Senate Republicans defending their seats in states that Trump lost. Gardner didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 because, he said, he didn’t think Trump could win, which makes it sound like a pure political decision, which it was. Supporting Trump this time was also a political decision. He had no choice, given how Trump voters now dominate the Republican Party.

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In fact, in another Trumpian moment that Gardner couldn’t have been proud of, Trump said in a post-vice-presidential debate interview with Fox News that Kamala Harris was a “communist” and a “monster.” What else would Trump say about a woman of color on the Democratic ticket? I think we can safely call this a McCarthian, misogynistic moment, and not the last one. You think that helps Republicans keep the Senate? How about Trump’s desperate call for Bill Barr or someone to indict Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for apparently the greatest crime in American history?

Given the chance, Gardner strongly condemned white supremacists, which you’d think would be easy, as it is for anyone other than both-sides Trump, who attacked Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for not thanking him when the FBI reportedly foiled a right wing conspiracy to kidnap her. By the way, she did thank the FBI. Gardner also said he would accept the results of the election, another no-brainer for many of us, but not one that Trump has accepted. 

By Gardner standards in his relationship with Trump, this was pretty much a smackdown. Other vulnerable Republicans had the same idea. In a debate, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis went so far as to say keeping the Senate majority was “the best check on a Biden presidency.” 

Of course, Gardner reserved his real smackdowns for Hickenlooper. Some of it was invented — like Hick’s supposed support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — and some of it was about Hickenlooper’s ethics violation, which is certainly legitimate. The problem for Gardner is that he keeps implying that Hickenlooper is a crook — in fact, Republicans have spent millions of dollars trying to make that case — but most Coloradans know Hick, having elected him governor twice, and simply don’t agree. 

It’s true that Hickenlooper may like to hang out a little too much with the private-jet crowd for my taste, and he hasn’t followed Amendment 41 as closely as he should — fair criticisms both — but Gardner hangs out a little too much for my taste with rich oil and gas types, not to mention the NRA. And then there’s the little matter of Gardner supporting the most corrupt presidential team in modern times. I never thought it possible that anyone could let Nixon off the hook.

Maybe the strangest line of attack was Gardner sort of blaming Hickenlooper for the Senate’s failure to pass another COVID-related stimulus bill because Hickenlooper hinted that if he were elected, he wouldn’t have supported the absurdly underfunded Senate version that Gardner supported. Of course, it was Trump who pulled the plug on negotiations, not Hick, saying the Senate should concentrate on confirming Trump’s 11th-hour nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, for the Supreme Court. Now the White House is trying again for stimulus, but maybe not trying hard enough.

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For much of the debate, Gardner kept repeating that this election was “not about you, John.” Not sure what that meant, but it must have been focus-grouped. He said it as often as Hick said the key to everything was the health of small businesses like, say, the restaurants he had once run. Gardner said Hickenlooper was untrustworthy. Hickenlooper said Gardner’s attacks were lies and distortions. It was heated enough that, at times, Gardner failed to remember to smile.

Gardner would win any debate with Hickenlooper on points. He’s more stylish. He’s far better on his feet. But you have to wonder if voters see Gardner as too clever by half. Maybe the most telling statistic in the SurveyUSA poll was the comparable favorability ratings of the two candidates. Hick came in slightly above water at 48 favorable to 45 unfavorable. Gardner was well underwater with 38% favorable and 50% unfavorable. 

Hick, though not a great debater, did get in his points, if, as usual, he stumbled over his words to get there. But you don’t need elocution lessons to be able to simply tie Gardner to Trump. For instance, Hick questioned how Gardner could vote for 98% of Trump’s often-rushed judicial appointments. Ten of the judges Trump nominated were rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. The moderators — who were pretty much universally praised — tried to get Gardner to explain how he could reconcile his refusal to give Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a vote — Gardner said in 2016 that eight months out were too close to the election — with his current support for Barrett’s nomination. Gardner dodged the question, of course. They also pressed Hickenlooper for his refusal, following Biden’s lead, in not saying whether he supported adding seats to the Supreme Court (AKA court-packing). He dodged, too.

And while Gardner tried again to cite his bipartisan chops, it’s also true that Gardner was there for Trump on all the big votes, including voting nine times — by HIck’s count — to dismantle Obamacare while Republicans keep saying they have an alternate plan. They don’t. Gardner wrote a 117-word bill — approximately the same number of words explaining how to best open a box of cereal — saying it protects pre-existing conditions from the vultures in the medical insurance world. It doesn’t. Read it here. 

In increasingly blue Colorado, Gardner is the lone Republican to have won a top-of-the-ballot race in Colorado since 2004. He beat Mark Udall by two points in 2014, a strong Republican year. The victory was seen at the time by many as a national Republican model. Of course, that was before Trump. And Gardner’s top-of-the-ballot race with Hickenlooper has Trump at the very top. And Gardner has one more debate left, next week, in which to persuade voters — without actually ever saying it, of course— that they could vote against Trump and still vote for him.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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