A column from Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul appeared in the much larger forum of the Washington Post yesterday, offering another torrid take on the impending fall of GOP Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado along a theme we’ve been hearing quite a bit the last few days: that Gardner, an “excellent candidate” in his own right, is being set up to lose by President Donald Trump and not Gardner’s own choices:
In 2014, Republican Cory Gardner, a congressman from rural Colorado, parlayed his charm and ability to connect with voters into a Senate seat by defeating Mark Udall, an incumbent Democrat from a Western political dynasty. Liberals feared Gardner’s political talent, and conservatives hoped it would take him far.
Then Donald Trump was elected president. Now, given Trump’s extreme unpopularity in a state whose electorate is generally moving to the left, Colorado Democrats are confident that, come Election Day, they will pick up Gardner’s seat and fill it with the state’s popular former governor, John Hickenlooper…
Making things worse for Gardner is the fact Trump trails Biden by an average of 13 percentage points in Colorado. “Jesus Christ himself couldn’t overperform Trump by double digits,” said Tyler Sandberg, a Republican operative. [Pols emphasis]
It’s a narrative that Republicans seem determined to shape now, with hope of actually saving Gardner’s seat realistically gone for his local supporters and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC)–the proof being in the money flowing to battleground states as Democrats work to run up the score in a growing wave. If Gardner can’t be saved, then perhaps he can be martyred in defeat with a cover story that blames Trump, and in so doing preserves Republican hopes in Colorado that a comeback may be possible in future years against the state’s leftward political trajectory.
We give Jesse Paul credit in this column for laying out some of the most damning moments in Gardner’s embrace of Trump, from Gardner’s initial denunciation of Trump in October of 2016 saying “I cannot and will not support someone who brags about degrading and assaulting women” to Gardner’s metamorphosis after Trump’s victory into one of the President’s most steadfast supporters. The problem with this analysis is blithely dismissing Gardner’s transformation as inevitable. The truth is, Gardner’s decisions to stand closely with Trump through innumerable scandals, impeachment, and the disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic were voluntary choices–not coerced by base GOP support for Trump or any other factor.
To suggest that Gardner had “no choice” but to fall in line behind Trump after Trump won the 2016 elections is a major misreading of Colorado’s political trends since Gardner narrowly won his seat in 2014. In reality, Gardner needed to move to the center from the very beginning of his Senate term in order to have any chance of re-election in 2020, but Gardner’s agenda of hard-right low-information crusades against the Affordable Care Act and social wedge issues like abortion made that impossible. Trump didn’t force Gardner to the right, Trump simply made Gardner’s pre-existing agenda toxic by giving it the chance of actually becoming law–a threat voters in Colorado responded to in 2018 by throwing out Republicans at every level of elected office.
The point here is that Gardner is not some kind of political prodigy brought to earth by factors beyond his control. One of the biggest reasons Gardner’s election to the U.S. Senate in 2014 has inspired such lasting division and enmity within the state’s political class is that Gardner’s politics are so at odds with a majority of Colorado voters that his narrow victory is broadly regarded as a swindle–deception committed by Gardner and many local influencers that allowed Gardner to win a race he should not have won. Since that time, Gardner has had many opportunities to chart a different course for himself, in the mold of respected Western GOP Senators like John McCain or even Mitt Romney–and he never even tried.
For Cory Gardner, a collection of contradictions from the beginning, this is comeuppance a decade in the making. The reason is simple: for all the credit Gardner gets for being a “great candidate,” he’s really not. At least not for Colorado. Gardner’s agenda became more out of step with the state he represents with each election since 2014, and Gardner’s energetic wunderkind persona was effectively turned against him in 2020 by a laconic, more authentic John Hickenlooper.
For Colorado Republicans, any road back starts with understanding what Cory Gardner did wrong, not revising history to salvage Cory Gardner’s reputation. Trump tops the ticket, but Gardner made choices entirely on his own that brought him to ruin.