It was last July that we first started hearing news that Gardner was angling to become the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) for the 2018 election cycle. The NRSC is the organization charged with holding (and increasing) the Republican Senate majority. The job comes with a leadership title within the Senate GOP, but also carries tremendous fundraising and strategic responsibilities.
It might also be the worst job in politics in 2018.
Helming the NRSC once seemed like a logical step for the freshman Senator as he looked to increase his influence and fundraising database in advance of his own re-election bid in 2020 — particularly when it looked like Gardner and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis would be named NRSC co-chairs. Here’s what we wrote at the time:
Timing can be everything in politics, and few Colorado elected officials understand that better than Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma)…
…It is certainly true that 2018, a non-Presidential election year, appears to be a better cycle to be heading up campaign operations for Senate Republicans. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker won the job in 2016 with a close insider-election over Nevada Sen. Dean Heller; considering the fractured nature of the Republican Party and its less-than-ideal Presidential nominee (Donald Trump), Wicker probably wishes he had a do-over.
Things turned out okay for Sen. Wicker in 2016, and now it is Gardner who almost certainly wishes he had a do-over. Gardner ended up getting the NRSC title all to himself; barring some sort of miracle, his already blurry reputation as a top strategic mind is going to take a severe beating.
The 2018 cycle looked like it would be better for Republicans before Donald Trump was elected President and before it became clear that Senate Republicans would be trying to corral an unmanageable majority. When Gardner was elected NRSC Chair, Republicans were looking at defending just eight seats in 2018 — a favorable scenario for the GOP in terms of growing its narrow majority. But with Trump’s election — and without a President Hillary Clinton to blame for things — Senate Republicans suddenly had to back up years of promises (like immediately repealing Obamacare), and Gardner was in the awkward position of trying to raise money from major donors who are furious that the GOP can barely tie its shoes.
And then there was Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Alabama Republicans selected former Judge Roy Moore as their nominee for the U.S. Senate over Sen. Luther Strange, the establishment-backed “incumbent” who was appointed to fill the vacancy created by the appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Moore openly campaigned against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP establishment (which includes Gardner). Trump is furious that Republicans convinced him to campaign for Strange. Republicans are petrified that Moore’s comfortable win on Tuesday will embolden more right-wing candidates to challenge establishment favorites across the country.
This is already a very real worry in Tennessee after Sen. Bob Corker announced Tuesday that he would not seek re-election in 2018. As the Washington Post reports, Corker’s retirement is “another blow to the Republican establishment wing”:
Once considered an ally of Trump’s national security team, Corker and Trump traded insults during the August break amid chatter that staunch conservatives would mount a primary challenge to the Foreign Relations chairman.
Corker’s retirement will create what is likely to be a highly contested, ideologically driven Republican primary. It also creates a vacuum among Senate Republicans for leaders on national security issues.
As if the news about Moore and Corker wasn’t bad enough for Gardner, a new poll shows that Republican incumbents are in real trouble in 2018. From CNN:
Asked whether “most members of Congress” deserve re-election, just 22% of Americans say they do while 68% think they don’t. Among registered voters, only 20% want most members re-elected while 70% would rather the majority of members not return to Congress.
What’s even more striking is how low those “yes, deserves re-election” numbers are among Republicans and self-identified conservatives who, presumably, should be pleased with the Republican majorities in Congress. In fact, the opposite is true. Just 3 in 10 Republicans say they want to see most members reelected while only 25% of conservatives say the same. [Pols emphasis]
This is all very bad news for Gardner, who is going to get a lot of blame if Republicans lose their Senate majority in 2018. The shifting political landscape that started with Trump isn’t Gardner’s fault, but at the end of the day, he’s still the captain of the NRSC’s sinking ship…and Mitch McConnell isn’t going to throw himself under the bus.