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Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner participates in the final debate in the 2020 race for Colorado's U.S. Senate seat at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (Pool photo)

What’s next for Cory Gardner?

That’s the big question on Colorado Republicans’ minds a day after Gardner was decisively knocked out of his U.S. Senate seat by Democrat John Hickenlooper. 

At only 46, Gardner still has plenty of time to regroup and continue his political career, which began in 2005 when he was appointed to a seat in the Colorado legislature. He also could head to the private sector.

Those closest to Gardner say they haven’t discussed the Republican’s future with him and that he’s been focused on his Senate reelection bid. Gardner made no mention of his future in his concession speech Tuesday night.

“He’s not somebody who’s already got his next job lined up,” said Rachel George, a former congressional staffer for Gardner. “That’s not his personality.”

But that hasn’t stopped speculation by his biggest cheerleaders about the options he has before him, nor has it eliminated their hopes that he will continue to be a force in Colorado politics. 

One possibility: He could run for Colorado governor in 2022.

Sean Duffy, a Republican strategist and former aide to Gov. Bill Owens, said Gardner has a bright future.

“I think he would be a darn good governor. He reminds me very much of Bill Owens in his demeanor and his approach,” Duffy said. “He’s a good debater — he can get fired up but he doesn’t get loud.”

From left, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and state Rep. Matt Sooper chat with supporters during a get-out-the-vote-rally at the Grand Junction Motor Speedway on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis’ first term is up in 2022 and there isn’t yet a clear Republican frontrunner to challenge the Democrat. Polling shows a majority of Coloradans approve of the governor’s job performance.

Anyone who decides to take on Polis wil also face a significant financial hurdle because he is so wealthy and willing to spend his money on his political future. In 2018, the year Polis was elected governor, he spent $23 million on his race and handily defeated Republican Walker Stapleton.

Individual donors can give Colorado gubernatorial candidates only $1,250 each election cycle, making it difficult for anyone to keep up with Polis’ self-funding. 

“His money advantage is a major barrier to entry,” said Josh Penry, a Republican political consultant and friend of Gardner’s.

Penry says life as a senator has been grueling for Gardner. It has meant that he’s often away from his wife and three children, who live in northeastern Colorado. 

“It’s a lot,” Penry said. “He does not live a glamorous lifestyle.” 

That said, Penry doubts someone as ambitious and driven as Gardner will be able to simply hang it up and walk away.

“People who are drawn to this business don’t usually satiate their appetite right away,” he said. “My guess is we haven’t heard the last of him.”

Gardner will also likely face difficulty shaking his ties to President Donald Trump in Colorado, said Rick Ridder, a veteran Democratic pollster. Gardner’s link to the president was in large part why he lost on Tuesday night. 

Ridder expects those difficulties to last, though it “may not last at this level.”

“You can’t look at this data set and say: ‘Boy, a good centrist Republican can win,’” Ridder said, referencing his recent polling.

Other Democrats agree.

“Cory’s problem was the state has changed and he did not,” said Laura Chapin, a Democratic consultant and fierce Gardner critic. “The voting demographics of Colorado do not lead to future career plans for Cory Gardner.” 

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, speaks at news conference celebrating the Rocky Mountain Regional United States Patent and Trademark Office’s fifth anniversary on Aug. 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

She thinks Gardner will likely become a lobbyist. That could be difficult for him, however, since he sponsored legislation in the Senate that would have banned members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists

Greg Brophy, a Republican former state senator in Colorado, thinks Gardner could end up in Trump’s cabinet if the president is reelected to another term. If Trump loses, Brophy thinks Gardner has options.

“He’s a rare talent,” Brophy said. “I feel confident that he still has a future in politics.”

If he doesn’t want to stay in politics, Duffy, the GOP consultant, says there’s a path for Gardner, too.

“He could run a company. He would be a very good CEO. He’s whip-smart, and he’s as nice as he is smart,” Duffy said.

“People will call. He’s well liked.”

Updated at 6:57 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020: This story has been updated to correct how much money gubernatorial candidates in Colorado can accept from individual donors. They can accept $1,250.

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

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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.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul