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Katie Farnan has campaigned to unseat U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, often using a 5-foot-high image nicknamed “Cardboard Cory,” seen here in downtown Boulder on Oct. 31, 2020. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Days before the election, even as the outcome of the U.S. Senate race in Colorado looked all-but-certain, Katie Farnan refused to believe it.

The mother-turned-activist from Boulder worked for the better part of four years for this moment, all in the hopes of defeating Republican incumbent Cory Gardner. She carried a cutout known as Cardboard Cory to dozens of events and demanded the senator hold a town hall. She became his alter ego on Twitter. Her kids, ages 4 and 6, knew his name. “A lot of people associate me with that race as a singular thing,” she said.

Even as she neared her goal, she wouldn’t allow the idea of success to enter her mind. She planned to work until the end to turn out the Democratic vote. “I’m just cautious,” she said. 

The careful sentiment is apt given Gardner’s surprise upset of Democratic incumbent Mark Udall in the 2014 election, not to mention Trump’s stunning win in 2016. In reality, Farnan had little to worry about. 

Political observers and polls in Colorado suggest Gardner didn’t lose on Nov. 3. He lost months, if not years, earlier as part of the most cohesive protest campaign in recent memory — the one Farnan helped launch in early 2017 that is best known by its mascot Cardboard Cory.

Gardner’s public image took a nose dive in 2017 as Trump entered office and demonstrations mounted. He never recovered. The final tally for the 2020 election showed he lost by 9 percentage points to Democrat John Hickenlooper. 

A blend of shifting political demographics, loyalty to Trump and missed opportunities in the campaign led to the first-term senator’s demise. But the Cardboard Cory protests to pressure Gardner played a significant role.

The effort kept liberal-minded activists motivated and it shifted the narrative to put Gardner on the defensive. Most importantly, the combination ensured that Democrats wouldn’t enter the 2020 campaign cycle with the complacency that allowed Gardner to win six years earlier.

“Losing Mark Udall was devastating. We had always been really coming for Cory Gardner that whole time,” said Justine Sandoval, a Democratic strategist who works for a women’s reproductive rights organization in Colorado.

How much credit the Cardboard Cory project deserves for the race’s outcome is debatable. But Democratic and Republican political observers marvel at the effort’s ability to leverage and maintain the anger on the political left through the 2020 election.

The reason for the campaign’s success is lesser known. At important moments, a network of liberal advocacy organizations, Democratic Party allies and major donors activated and guided the Cardboard Cory campaign from behind the scenes, according to more than a dozen interviews and scores of internal strategy documents.

The network steered the post-2016 election energy toward Gardner as a proxy for Trump and broader conservative ideology, displaying a new level of sophistication that represented an evolution of the state’s much-celebrated “blueprint.”

And just as similar forces years earlier shifted the state’s political landscape, the network’s combined muscle powered Democrats to historic control in Colorado. Here’s how it came together.

The birth of an activist and a “relentless” campaign

Four years ago, Farnan didn’t know Gardner was her senator. The 41-year-old mother of two who works as a nonprofit adviser said she had been involved in politics in the past. She voted and even volunteered in the 2012 election. But Farnan mostly considered herself politically “checked out.”

Like so many, that changed with Trump’s improbable victory. “I was hit really hard — just in a daze — and felt like I had to do something,” she said in a recent interview.

As she doomscrolled Twitter, Farnan came across a document called the Indivisible guide. The playbook told liberals to replicate tea party tactics that conservatives used to undercut President Barack Obama to now pressure members of Congress in the Trump era. The stated goal was to force Republicans who controlled the levers of power to “listen to a small, vocal, dedicated group of constituents.”

“That felt very concrete to me,” Farnan recalled. She didn’t have a Facebook account at the time, so she joined the platform and found Front Range Resistance, an Indivisible group that started the prior week. She says she posted a message: “The guide says we should go to people’s offices, so who wants to go?” She proposed visiting the Denver office for Gardner, the closest congressional Republican outpost.

Plenty of people in the Facebook group expressed interest, but only one joined Farnan on Jan. 3, 2017. The two met with a Gardner staffer to talk about the federal health care law and the nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general. Farnan said she also asked when Gardner would hold a town hall, only to be rebuffed.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” she said. “We knew we needed to ask when we could talk to him in a meeting. And immediately (the staffer) said it’s a no-go. I think that set it off for us.”

Farnan posted a photo of the visit to Twitter and tagged the national Indivisible group, which shared it. The next day, TV show host Rachel Maddow featured the tweet on MSNBC.

The national attention continued, generating new supporters and setting in motion a series of events that turned Farnan into one of the state’s rising liberal activists. “That was incredibly — radically — empowering and that’s what worked for me to stay engaged,” she said. “I said, ‘Wow, this is something people are tuning into.’”

She helped organize other protests against Gardner — building on the huge turnout for the women’s march in Denver — and focused on the demand for Gardner to hold a town hall, an instruction from the Indivisible guide. They invited Gardner and promised a substantive dialogue but knew he wouldn’t attend. They planned to host it with or without him. 

The first of these “in absentia” town halls about Gardner took place Feb. 21 and packed a church in Fort Collins. The next one, three days later, boosted the political theater with the addition of a life-size cutout of Gardner taped to a podium in the middle of the Byers Middle School gymnasium in Denver. 

A crowd of more than a thousand attended, and the cutout became the star of the show. One by one, selected speakers talked to the cutout about how they needed the coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act that Gardner wanted to repeal and how they wanted him to speak out against Trump’s demand for a southern border wall, among other issues.

Some defended Gardner’s absence because they considered the cutout town hall to be political posturing, and one conservative writer dismissed it as “an old gimmick.”

A cardboard cutout of U.S. Senator Cory Gardner is pictured at Byers Middle School in Denver on Feb. 24, 2017, during an “in absentia” town hall meeting. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The criticism missed the point. It was strikingly effective: The inability of the smiling cutout to respond only reinforced the driving message of the protest — that Gardner wouldn’t answer constituent questions.

A study of the Cardboard Cory campaign — featured in a 2019 book cataloguing new activism in the Americas — compared it to Augusto Boal’s resistance theater that gives participants new “political agency … to demand the right to be heard.” 

The authors, Natalie Alvarez at Ryerson University and Keren Zaiontz at Queen’s University, wrote that “the Cardboard Cories are not intended to serve as effigies that are subjected to ritual burnings … but proxies that allow citizens to rehearse civil disobedience through persuasive performative conduct.”

In the aftermath of the faux town halls, Gardner faced constant questions about why he wouldn’t hold his own and where he stood on Trump’s policies, a narrative that held strong for months. And the attention led to more protests and what organizers called “the summer of marches” with events scheduled roughly every week. 

For the May 2017 congressional recess, the groups created a 13-page advocacy plan dubbed “Make Them Shake” that asked supporters to call lawmakers’ offices twice a day for a week to “fill your Rep’s voicemail.” It also provided sample social media posts and a list of rallies to attend. Soon, a new iteration of the Gardner cutouts were born — at about $100 a piece — and distributed to activists throughout the state for Cardboard Cory events. 

In August, Gardner finally held three town halls of his own. All took place in a single day, a rip-off-the-Band-Aid response to the criticism. By then, the anger reached a fever pitch. At the town halls, people in the audience shouted and yelled “You suck!” A sympathetic columnist even had to write that “Gardner isn’t evil.”

What the activists wanted from Gardner was impractical. In 2014, he ran on repealing Obamacare. He ran as an anti-abortion conservative. He opposed tougher gun laws. And he won.

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Gardner initially balked at Trump. He called on him to step aside weeks before the 2016 election and vowed not to vote for him. (Instead, he said he wrote in vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence’s name.) But if the move gave his skeptics hope, it was a false one. 

True to his record, Gardner backed the Republican-led Senate’s legislative agenda, escorted Colorado-native Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court, voted repeatedly to undo the federal health care law, became the head of a party campaign committee and even came to embrace Trump.

Farnan said she didn’t expect “him to become a Democrat,” but figured he could at least “take political cover in backing off some of these things.” He didn’t.

But what he did — and by extension what Trump did and said — also kept his critics fuming, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of energy on the Democratic side. “I think what we did was a good job of just being relentless,” Farnan said. “I will take full credit for being completely obsessed with wanting to get Cory Gardner out of that seat because his positions hurt people.”

Republican strategists in Colorado acknowledged the sustained campaign was impressive, but they decried the tone and tactics, as well as dismissed the idea he was absent.

“I really think the wholly negative focus on Trump and Gardner, no matter what they do, has been energizing to the left, no question,” said Sean Duffy, a veteran consultant. But he added: “It’s always easier to be against something than for something.”

A liberal network harnesses the outrage and builds upon it 

Two days after the 2016 election, the message scrawled on the wall inside an old house on Humboldt Street in Denver read: “Fuck Cory Gardner.”

The house served as the headquarters for ProgressNow Colorado, the state’s leading liberal advocacy organization. The team of strategists had gathered around a long table to assess a future with Republicans in power in Washington.

One of the first questions Executive Director Ian Silverii asked his staff: “Are you OK?” Democrat Hillary Clinton won Colorado’s vote, but Trump’s win in the Electoral College shook them. The second question: “What are we going to do?”

The message on the wall said it all — defeat Gardner. “This is the project for the next four years,” Silverii told his team.

Ten-month-old Davis Silverii looks on as his father, Ian Silverii, and mother, Brittany Pettersen, play chess in their Lakewood home on Nov. 11, 2020. Ian Silverii is the executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, while Pettersen is the state senator in Jefferson County. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ever since his upset victory over Udall — by a scant 39,668 votes, or 1.9 percentage points — Gardner evoked contempt from Democrats that extended far beyond reflexive partisanship. They argue Gardner deceived voters, distracting them from his record with campaign commercials featuring windmills and an ever-present smile. They considered him a fraud.

It hurts Democrats more that he took out Udall, a lawmaker with integrity and grit who many considered the epitome of a western Democrat cut straight from a Patagonia catalogue. Gardner “represents everything about the GOP that we hate — the fact he has this smile on his face as he’s screwing you,” explained Chris Keating, a Democratic pollster. “It’s a visceral hatred to this kind of Republican who acts like they are your best friend but they will screw you on abortion rights and health care and on down the line.”

The bitterness simmered for Gardner’s first two years in office as a Democrat in the White House gave the party a safe backstop. That all changed after the 2016 election.

Because Colorado remained blue at the top of the ticket in 2016 — with Democrats winning the state’s presidential contest and U.S. Senate race — allies, activists and donors at all levels came to ProgressNow for direction on what to do next. It made sense. The nonprofit stood as a central pillar of the progressive political infrastructure that is credited with shifting the state leftward starting in 2004.

Silverii, a longtime operative, pointed them toward Gardner. “We are going to hold his feet to the fire to make sure he’s actually going to represent us and not Donald Trump,” Silverii told anyone who would listen.

The energy to execute the idea existed in the dozen of Indivisible groups emerging across the state. But the new groups lacked the organization necessary to make a mark. After one disjointed meeting of activists at the Boulder Public Library, Silverii approached Farnan and offered to help. At Alfalfa’s Market across the street, they discussed ideas for more than an hour. “It was one of those conversations (like) when maybe you met your wife for the first time or your best friend, where you are just excited the whole time,” Silverii said.

The organizers initially wanted to lead a protest caravan to Gardner’s hometown office (a plan dubbed “3:10 to Yuma,” a riff on the movie title) but Silverii worried it could backfire. He encouraged them to host a town hall.

The power of the event is undeniable, he explained: “You get these people in front of you. You ask tough questions. You record their answers. You hold them accountable. You can make moments out of it.”

ProgressNow was well-positioned to help make it count. In the years ahead of the 2020 election, the organization evolved into a more nimble message machine and media firm. To reach persuadable voters, it shifted the focus to its own social media channels and invested in creating its own digital content. The organization’s 13-member staff now includes four digital media strategists and four video producers. 

A cardboard cutout of U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is pictured at center by Lafayette’s then-Mayor Christine Berg, in red at left, at a mock town hall at Byers Middle School in Denver on Feb. 24, 2017. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The organization also began to share its expertise by providing multimedia content at a fraction of the cost of political firms. More recently, the organization commissioned regular polling to test progressive messaging for its partners.

The role allowed ProgressNow to shape the liberal messages across campaigns and organizations, a level of coordination unmatched by Republicans in the state and a national model for Democrats.

The Cardboard Cory campaign is a case study for how it worked. ProgressNow live-streamed the Denver town hall and created video clips for social media that spread the message well beyond what Indivisible groups could have managed. The organization covered the cost for the gymnasium and furnished the podium. It also provided the first edition of Cardboard Cory, a wrinkled relic of the 2014 campaign found in the basement of it office.

In other ways, the involvement of ProgressNow is what enabled the campaign to become iconic. Alan Franklin, the ProgressNow political director, designed the image used for the new cutout, the one most people recognize. He enlarged Gardner’s head from an official portrait and put it on a shrunken body taken from a stock image of a “friendly Caucasian man … in business formal outfit with hands behind back.” ProgressNow paid to print extras.

The Indivisible activists wanted to call it “Cardy Gardner,” but ProgressNow strategists coined “Cardboard Cory” as the nickname. The organization also helped finance a bus tour in August 2019 that took the cutout to small towns and generated local media attention about Gardner’s lack of accessibility to voters. 

At the same time, ProgressNow coordinated activists by listing one item they could do each week in an email sent to 50,000 addresses. The effort continued after the election as the “Monday email.”

Silverii said his organization helped harness the energy and fundraising for it, but not control it.

“The thing that really took off during all these protests is we needed one center hub, and ProgressNow became that,” said Sarah Metsch, a volunteer at ADAPT. The disability rights organization led one of the most notable protests against Gardner, a three-day sit-in at the senator’s Denver office in 2017 that ended in 10 arrests and drew support from Indivisible and other liberal groups.

The national Indivisible organization provided guidance and funded a short documentary on Cardboard Cory. Other progressive groups also added support. A broad coalition — ranging from those focused on the environment to those representing communities of color — joined the 2019 Cardboard Cory bus tour to help amplify the message.

“When Cardboard Cory started, it was literally a grassroots idea. There wasn’t a whole publicity machine behind it,” said Olga Robak at the Colorado chapter of Protect Our Care, a national organization focused on health care, which joined the bus tour. “What groups like Protect Our Care do is make sure those voices get heard.”

The involvement of a broader liberal network doesn’t surprise Republican strategists in Colorado who’ve seen its influence in prior elections. But this year, it sounded malicious. “You had a number of well-funded, well-organized progressive organizations that spent six years with the sole intent of making Cory’s life a living hell,” said Allen Fuller, a GOP consultant who watched the campaign unfold. “It had nothing to do with policy, nothing to do with leadership — it was purely an ongoing six-year attack campaign.”

“Obviously,” he continued, “we have differences, and that’s the beautiful thing about our country. But when you have millions of dollars of infrastructure for the sole purpose of attacking Cory Gardner simply for being there, that’s not productive for our democracy.”

Silverii said Trump is the one who set the tone and put venom into the political discourse. This campaign cycle, he said, “is when progressives learned how to fight back.”

“We were always these highfalutin, idealistic (people living in this) West-Wing-Aaron-Sorkin-bullshit, fantasy fairytale,” he added. “And what we figured out is we can throw punches too.”

Cardboard Cory shadows the 2020 campaign

One additional element that helped keep the new army of liberal activists engaged was the taste of victory. The 2018 election led turnout to hit new levels and swept Democrats to huge victories, including an overwhelming upset of U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the 6th District. Now the activists and organizations had to do it one more time. 

The quick pivot to the next election was made all the more easy in January 2019 when Gardner endorsed Trump, completing his about-face on a candidate he once called a “buffoon.”

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

The national party joined the fray and sent big money to the Colorado Democratic Party, which added a communications adviser in April whose primary job was to hound Gardner. 

The position went to Alyssa Roberts, a former Udall staffer. In her eight months on the job, she sent reporters an average of one email per workday to criticize Gardner. Many messages reinforced the Cardboard Cory narrative that the senator was hiding from tough questions. 

In September, shortly after the bus tour concluded, a new nonprofit called Rocky Mountain Values, which didn’t disclose its donors, began a barrage of TV commercials aimed at Gardner on the environment and health care. In the next year, the group spent $5.7 million in TV ads against Gardner and helped organize nearly 50 events.

The partners for the events included ProgressNow, Protect Our Care and the Cardboard Cory campaign. New tax filings show Rocky Mountain Values received at least $4 million from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a national dark-money group that also provided financial support to ProgressNow and other liberal groups.

Marie Aberger with Rocky Mountain Values said the campaign against Gardner showed “the power of bringing all these groups together and driving a consistent message.”

Gardner struggled to respond. Republicans didn’t come to his defense in any concerted fashion until early 2020. His campaign considered the Cardboard Cory project a sideshow and suggested it didn’t have an impact on the Republican’s polling because most voters didn’t know about it. 

The senator dismissed the demonstrations from the beginning. In early 2017, he said the people demonstrating outside his offices and flooding his phone lines were “paid protesters,” a remark that still aggravates his critics.

In interviews and statements, Gardner and his team argued he was accessible to constituents and highlighted the private meetings he held across the state. On the day he held his town halls, the smooth talking senator adeptly answered questions and parried criticism, but it didn’t do much to shift the conversation. His average approval rating finished the campaign below Trump’s number in Colorado.

Hickenlooper launched his campaign with the backing of the national party just before the TV ads from Rocky Mountain Values started hitting Gardner. The Democrat’s campaign borrowed messages from the Cardboard Cory project and hired Roberts for a similar job focused on countering Gardner’s record. 

Hickenlooper, the former governor, echoed Gardner’s strategy by limiting his public appearances at town halls and avoiding reporter’s questions. The moves frustrated Indivisible activists, but they remained focused on defeating Gardner. 

In October, just as the race hit a crucial moment with a series of debates, Hickenlooper debuted one of his campaign’s most eye-catching TV ads. It featured two different cutouts of Gardner on a debate stage and the tagline: “Which Cory Gardner is going to show up?”

Katie Farnan handles the Twitter alter ego for Cardboard Cory, a campaign she helped launch in 2017 to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner that features a cutout of the lawmaker. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A big win and a question about what’s next

Just before 7 p.m. when the polls closed on Election Day, Farnan sat down on her couch to watch the first batch of results in the U.S. Senate race. She didn’t wait long. Seven minutes later, a national television network projected Gardner’s defeat.

Her husband came over and gave her a big hug. “You did it,” he told her. Farnan felt bewildered that four years of work ended so abruptly. “It was very anticlimactic,” she said. “I guess I felt just more relief … than elation.”

She felt a bit deflated, given the uncertain results of the presidential race and unsettled balance of the U.S. Senate on election night. If not for the coronavirus pandemic and her children, Farnan said she would jump on a plane to Georgia to help in the Senate runoff elections.

But for now, she continues to pressure Gardner on Twitter and she’s organizing a send-off event for the cutouts. She said she’s not done.

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