(Bumped into November)
It appears likely that Sen. Cory Gardner will not be re-elected to the U.S. Senate next week. If months and years of polling data are accurate, Gardner will be handily defeated by Democrat John Hickenlooper. It will be a loss of his own making.
Like many Republicans, Gardner might have been dragged down by Trump in 2020 no matter what he did. Democrats certainly would have tied the two together whenever possible, but Gardner made it easy by getting stuck in a quintessential quagmire; instead of trying to extricate himself from Trump’s backside, Gardner just kept stepping closer and closer and closer.
But Gardner also made decisions that would have been wrong under any president. His quest to abolish the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was his central campaign message in 2014, became untenable as Americans decided that the ACA was actually pretty useful. Gardner’s refusal to engage with constituents and his persistent ducking of reporters fed a narrative of aloof indifference. “Cardboard Cory” was a brilliant counter to Gardner’s detachment from the public, but it wouldn’t have worked so well if Gardner hadn’t been such a perfect foil.
Gardner was haunted by his infamous 2014 ad in which he said, “When my party is wrong, I’ll say it.” This was the type of grand statement that helped him defeat incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, but eventually the bill came due on his promises. Gardner never tried to earn any equity with Colorado voters since that 2014 victory; by the time the 2020 election really started to heat up, his metaphorical wallet was empty.
Policy-wise, Gardner put a lot of time and effort into undertakings that were not as politically-useful as he might have calculated. He made a big deal about moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Colorado, but nobody cared. His push to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) didn’t resonate with voters who were more concerned about the coronavirus outbreak and, later, social justice protests; nobody who was worried about the general state of the country was going to side with Gardner because of LWCF.
The truth about Gardner is that he was never the brilliant rising star that he was portrayed to be in 2014. He made a lot of objectively dumb decisions that began to pile up over time. He never altered his path to reflect Colorado’s changing electorate.
Gardner was good at being the opposition candidate, as he was in 2014, but he never adjusted as Republicans gained more power in Washington DC. Gardner’s shtick only works if he has a villain to oppose, which is why he needed Hillary Clinton to win the Presidency in 2016. When a Republican majority forced him into the position of actually trying to govern, Gardner was lost.
We took a rather exhausting spin through Gardner’s full term in the Senate to identify precisely where things went wrong for Gardner. You can read through the full timeline after the jump, but the short version breaks down into 13 key moments in time:
♦ October 2016
Following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Donald Trump brags about sexually assaulting women, Gardner calls on Trump to withdraw from the race and says, “I will not vote for Donald Trump.” [SPOILER ALERT: This doesn’t age well].
♦ Early 2017
Trump takes office and immediately promotes a “Muslim travel ban,” signals his full support for repealing the ACA, and nominates Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Gardner makes two big statements that he will eventually abandon: a) Promising not to repeal the ACA without a replacement plan, and b) Opposing Trump’s call for a wall along the US-Mexico border.
♦ July 2017
After months of pretending that he hadn’t decided how he would vote on repealing the ACA, Gardner casts TWO separate votes to do just that. Gardner never adjusts his talking points even after Arizona Sen. John McCain’s famous “thumbs down” on the Senate floor.
♦ August 2017
Two things happen this month that will not happen again: a) Gardner holds his last town hall meetings, and b) Gardner speaks out against President Trump following the racial violence in Charlottesville, VA.
♦ Early 2018
President Trump calls Haiti and other African nations “shithole countries.” A few months later, Trump implements his “family separation” policy for immigrants. Gardner is silent.
♦ November 2018
As Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign (NRSC), Gardner relies on a largely pro-Trump message in campaigns around the country. Back in Colorado, a massive blue wave sees Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Aurora) defeated by double digit margins. It should have been clear at this point that a pro-Trump message wasn’t going to work in Colorado.
♦ January 2019
Gardner becomes one of the first U.S. Senators to formally endorse President Trump’s re-election campaign. Whatever once bothered Gardner about Trump’s “Access Hollywood” moment no longer troubles the Yuma Republican.
♦ March 2019
Gardner flips on his previous opposition to a border wall and backs Trump’s efforts to fund the project by declaring a dubious “national emergency.” The editorial board of The Denver Post demolishes Gardner in an Op-Ed that is widely referred to as an “un-endorsement” (The Post endorsed Gardner in 2014).
♦ August 2019
“Cardboard Cory” goes on a statewide bus tour and generates significant media attention, highlighting Gardner’s refusal to engage with constituents.
♦ October 2019
Gardner absolutely implodes in front of a gaggle of Colorado reporters when pressed to respond to reports that President Trump tried to extort the President of Ukraine. It’s hard to overstate how much this moment damaged Gardner’s credibility, both with the media and with voters in general.
♦ February 2020
Gardner votes to acquit President Trump after a Senate impeachment trial in which he gets national press for pressing Senate Republicans NOT to call on additional witnesses. Later, Gardner appears at a Trump campaign rally in Colorado Springs in which Trump says that “Cory never wavered” in his support of the President. Gardner finishes the month by jetting to a $1,000-a-bottle champagne tasting party in Palm Beach, Florida…right at the time that the coronavirus pandemic is becoming big news in the United States.
♦ June 2020
The Trump administration has now completely botched the response to COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter protests are taking center stage in the news. Gardner refuses to speak a negative word about Trump on either issue. Gardner also spends millions on TV advertisements critical of Democrat John Hickenlooper, who handily wins a Democratic Primary Election regardless.
♦ October 2020
Gardner sides with Senate Republicans on confirming a new SCOTUS nominee, which is completely at odds with his 2016 comments on Obama nominee Merrick Garland. Given one last chance to stand up to Trump, Gardner fails; he is asked in a Senate debate whether or not he believes that President Trump is a “moral and ethical man.” Gardner answers, “Yes.”
And now, the full details of Gardner’s demise…
IN THE BEGINNING…
Gardner defeats incumbent Sen. Mark Udall by 2 percentage points. He is elected to the U.S. Senate on a message largely focused on his opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Less than one month into Gardner’s tenure in the U.S. Senate, Quinnipiac University releases polling data showing Gardner with a 36% approval rating in Colorado. Gardner will never crack 50% approval in any public poll.
The field of candidates seeking the Republican Presidential nomination grows to nearly two dozen. Gardner throws his support behind Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. While stumping for Rubio in New Hampshire, Gardner suggests that Hillary Clinton should be sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Gardner calls Donald Trump “a buffoon.”
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dies. President Obama nominates Merrick Garland as his replacement. Gardner backs Senate Republicans and refuses to give Garland a fair hearing, arguing that the next President should instead make this appointment.
Rubio flames out as a candidate for President (March 15). Gardner shifts his support behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and aligns himself with the #NeverTrump camp in Colorado. During the 2016 State GOP assembly, Gardner asks how Trump could handle Russian President Vladimir Putin if he can’t even handle a state convention.
— Cory Gardner (@CoryGardner) April 12, 2016
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Gardner is asked SEVEN TIMES if he will back Donald Trump if he becomes the GOP Presidential nominee. Gardner never answers.
Cruz drops out of race for President. Donald Trump effectively secures the GOP Presidential nomination on May 26.
After months of silence, Gardner half-heartedly endorses Donald Trump for President, claiming that “No good Republican could ever support Hillary Clinton.”
“Access Hollywood” tape leaks. Gardner declares that he “will not vote for Donald Trump” and calls for Trump to drop out of the race. Gardner says he will write-in the name Mike Pence for President.
“If Donald Trump wishes to defeat Hillary Clinton, he should do the only thing that will allow us to do so — step aside, and allow Mike Pence to be the Republican party’s nominee. If he fails to do so, I will not vote for Hillary Clinton but will instead write-in my vote for Mike Pence.”
— Sen. Cory Gardner, October 2016
Donald Trump is elected President of the United States.
Gardner is named Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) for the 2018 election cycle, which makes him an official part of the Senate Republican leadership team.
ALL ABOARD THE TRUMP TRAIN!…
Gardner starts trying to mend fences with incoming Trump administration.
President Trump institutes a “Muslim travel ban” as one of his first major acts in the White House. Gardner says…nothing.
Trump makes it clear that he fully supports Republican efforts to repeal the ACA and nominates Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gardner is smitten and begins voting with Trump at a better than 90% clip.
Cardboard Cory is born.
Gardner claims that disagreeable letters, emails and voicemails coming into his office are merely the work of “paid protestors.” Gardner is convincing himself that any opposition voices are manufactured, which blinds him to the realities of his growing unpopularity.
Gardner joins three other Republican Senators in signing a letter saying that ACA “reform should not come at the cost of disruption in access to health care for our country’s most vulnerable and sickest individuals.” Gardner does not stick to this position.
“I do think billions of dollars on a wall is not the right way to proceed.”
— Sen. Cory Gardner, March 2017
Gardner says that he is opposed to funding construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border.
A poll from Keating Research shows Gardner with a miserable 39% approval rating. Notably, Gardner is polling 20% worse than President Trump among Republican voters in Colorado.
President Trump fires FBI Director James Comey, essentially because Comey wouldn’t squash an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Gardner says…nothing.
Gardner makes a secret jaunt to East Asia, where he is photographed shaking hands with murderous Phillipine dictator Rodrigo Duterte.
The editorial board of The Denver Post calls on Gardner to show some backbone over discussions about repealing the ACA.
Gardner won’t answer questions from 9News reporter Brandon Rittiman about voting to repeal the ACA without a replacement plan in place, which contradicts the letter he signed in March. Gardner continues to pretend to be undecided on repealing the ACA.
Not long afterward, Gardner casts two separate votes to repeal the ACA. Republican momentum for repeal starts to fizzle after Arizona Sen. John McCain famously signals “thumbs down” on a key vote. Gardner stuck with the same song and dance even after it was clear that the repeal train had left town.
Gardner holds public town hall meetings in Colorado Springs, Greeley, and Lakewood and is roundly jeered, primarily for his insistence on repealing the ACA. This is the last time that Gardner will formally face Colorado voters as a U.S. Senator.
Gardner speaks out about Trump’s Charlottesville comments (Trump’s infamous “very fine people on both sides” quote). This is the last time Gardner will publicly oppose Trump.
Senate Republicans make another attempt at repealing the ACA with the flawed Graham-Cassidy bill. Gardner says…nothing.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions tries to rescind Obama-era DACA policy. Gardner says…nothing.
Gardner responds to reporter requests for comment on Trump collusion with Russia by issuing THE EXACT SAME STATEMENT he made six months earlier when former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate.
Meanwhile, new polling data shows that Gardner is the 8th-most disliked Senator in America and is almost upside-down in approval ratings. Gardner’s numbers are dropping faster than virtually every other Senator, and he’s regularly roasted on social media.
Gardner struggles to raise money in his role as Chair of the NRSC amid reports that his staff stole donor info from House Republican lists. Gardner’s “rising star” image takes a serious hit.
Gardner is mocked by The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon over his support for a Republican tax cut that largely benefits the wealthiest Americans. Speculation about Gardner’s 2020 re-election hopes begins to intensify.
Gardner votes for a Republican tax plan that is supported by only about 30 percent of American voters.
Gardner refuses to say whether accused pedophile Roy Moore should be seated in the U.S. Senate if he wins a runoff in Alabama.
President Trump refers to Haiti and regions of Africa as “shithole countries.” Gardner says…nothing. His silence this time is particularly notable after he joined Michael Bennet in the Gang of Six to pass some sort of immigration reform for Dreamers. He has avoided any direct confrontation with Trump since the president rescinded DACA.
“I don’t believe anybody is going to be deported,” says Gardner.
Trump not only ruined Gardner’s move to the middle but ensured that anything Gardner did on the immigration issue looked political and cosmetic. Which then leads to…
The Trump administration rolls out its “family separation policy” along the U.S.-Mexico border. Gardner says…nothing.
Gardner says that Republicans “can’t just walk away on health care.”
Gardner rejects theory that White House is in chaos, saying instead that it is just “very, very intense.”
Gardner votes to destroy “net neutrality.”
Gardner ducks questions about whether President Trump can pardon himself.
President Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland and says that he takes Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence community. Arizona Sen. John McCain calls it, “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Gardner signs his name to resolutions and statements affirming American support for NATO and calls for Russia to be designated a state sponsor of terror, but he won’t say the word “Trump.” Gardner has fallen into a loop where he talks adjacently to Trump-induced crises without ever calling the president out, which ends up making Gardner look hollow and weak to literally anybody paying attention — on the right and left.
Gardner agrees with President Trump’s conspiracy theories that social media companies are biased against conservative views.
Gardner backpedals on supporting an investigation into sexual assault claims made by a Boulder woman against SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Gardner votes NO on a measure intended to prevent the Trump administration from implementing expanded junk health insurance plans — which is part of the Trump plan to destroy the ACA.
Gardner arrives in West Virginia aboard Air Force One for a campaign rally in support of West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelly Moore Capito. These are the first concrete images of Gardner and Trump together.
Air Force One was in the air at the same time that news was breaking that former Trump attorney Michael Cohen had flipped on the President.
A massive blue wave in Colorado shows how far voters have drifted from Republican narrative. Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican who had served 30 years in elected office, is trounced by Democrat Jason Crow. Coffman’s inability to convince voters that he would oppose Trump plays a central role in his defeat, and he openly blames Trump for the loss; Gardner, meanwhile, praises Trump for helping Republicans maintain a Senate majority.
In the meantime, Gardner takes a victory lap for growing Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority by running a pro-Trump message on a predominantly red state map. The net effect is that Gardner’s political career becomes further entwined with Trump’s.
Gardner contradicts himself on funding a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Gardner becomes one of the first Senators to endorse President Trump for re-election.
Gardner is nowhere to be found as the longest federal government shutdown in history grinds along.
Gardner indicates his opposition to President Trump’s emergency declaration for border wall funding, though he leaves plenty of wiggle room. Gardner’s waffling just makes him look stupid.
Gardner starts to disappear from public view, holding no public events during the March congressional recess. “No Comment Cory” starts to gain a reputation for ducking journalists on every subject.
Gardner completes his flip on President Trump’s demand for an emergency declaration to fund his big border wall and hands over the budget keys to the White House.
Trump refuses to blame North Korea over the death of American Otto Warmbier. Gardner says…nothing.
The Denver Post smashes Gardner in an editorial that essentially retracts its 2014 endorsement.
Gardner is asked to respond to the now-concluded Mueller investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and makes it clear that he has already moved on. His statement is fairly ridiculous:
“Look, it’s clear there were no merit badges earned at the White House for behavior.”
— Sen. Cory Gardner, April 2019
Gardner is interviewed on Fox News and won’t even hint at disapproval over Trump’s assault on the Federal Reserve.
Gardner delivers a speech at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver that is a preview of his re-election message. His “Believe in Colorado” message is basically worthless within a couple of weeks.
After failing for months to respond to inquiries from 9News, anchor/reporter Kyle Clark finally catches Gardner at an event in Wheat Ridge. It does not go well.
Republican @SenCoryGardner’s staff and campaign won’t acknowledge #9News’ requests for interviews so I came to see him in person at a meet-and-greet at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge. #copolitics pic.twitter.com/Vfaq0reSZp
— Kyle Clark (@KyleClark) August 8, 2019
Meanwhile, Cardboard Cory becomes a star.
Gardner is asked about his position on gun safety following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
“I don’t support gun control.”
— Sen. Cory Gardner, August 2019
Gardner also releases a statement acknowledging that the El Paso shooter was motivated by white supremacy. He doesn’t say the “T” word.
— Kyle Clark (@KyleClark) August 4, 2019
News breaks that President Trump tried to extort Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden in exchange for badly-needed military funding.
Gardner delivers a speech on the Senate floor about his pet project to move the Bureau of Land Management HQ to Grand Junction, Colorado. The BLM move generates significant controversy instead of what Gardner thought would be a slam-dunk success story.
Gardner implodes in front of a group of reporters in Denver. Video of Gardner consistently ducking questions about President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine goes viral and is seen by millions of people. President Trump “likes” a tweet about Gardner’s gymnastics.
This is one of the most important questions of our time. Props to my colleagues at CNN, AP, 9news for continuing to ask the exact same question during the press gaggle.
— Joe St. George (@JoeStGeorge) October 10, 2019
Gardner casts a vote in the Senate opposing a resolution that was meant to condemn Trump administration efforts to overturn the ACA.
Does Gardner have a breaking point when it comes to Trump? Not yet.
Gardner speaks out against Proposition CC and the new law regulating oil and gas development, breaking his own long-maintained rule that he doesn’t comment on state initiatives.
Gardner tacks rightward on energy issues and speaks glowingly about the oil and gas industry.
Gardner continually ducks questions about whether he would support calling witnesses in a Senate impeachment trial.
Gardner backs Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
The New York Times goes looking for Cory:
The Senate holds impeachment trial. Gardner tries (and fails) to pretend that he is impartial as he comically tries to avoid answering specific questions from reporters. Gardner’s evasion vehicle of choice? The elevator.
Gardner urges fellow Republican Senators to stand firm in refusing to call additional witnesses for the impeachment trial. Gardner gets skewered for lying about this to reporters. Greg Sargent of The Washington Post reports that Gardner knows full well that the Biden-Ukraine story is nonsense.
Concerns about a coronavirus outbreak begin to become more mainstream. Gardner attends a Senate briefing on January 24.
Gardner’s campaign website is mysteriously scrubbed of any mention that he supports repealing the ACA.
Gardner votes to acquit President Trump while offering little in the way of explanation. Polling shows how much Colorado voters disagree with that decision. Gardner’s post-impeachment media tour is a disaster.
“Coloradans deserve better than Cory Gardner.”
— The Denver Post, February 2020
Gardner warmly greets President Trump at a rally in Colorado Springs. Trump seals their union:
Gardner tries to present himself as a national leader on Climate Change and starts leaning more heavily on an anti-socialism message. Gardner meets with Trump at White House to discuss LWCF.
Gardner is now cheering coronavirus stimulus funding, ten years after he blasted Democrats for similar efforts in the wake of a devastating recession.
Gardner self-quarantines after potential exposure to COVID-19. President Trump is regularly lying to Americans about the pandemic.
Gardner’s campaign tries to cover for Trump claims that he would be hosting a fundraiser for the Colorado Senator at the White House.
President Trump makes it clear that ventilators are being sent to Colorado in order to make Gardner look better. Gardner allies try — and fail — to contain the PR damage. The national media portray Gardner as the poster child for how Donald Trump was deploying medical equipment as political favors.
At the State Republican Convention, Gardner’s campaign shows a video intended to demonstrate his infallible commitment to Trump.
Gardner claims that he regularly speaks with President Trump about the coronavirus pandemic. Gardner does NOT, however, comment on Trump’s suggestion for injecting bleach into the body to fight the coronavirus.
Gardner makes ridiculous claim that COVID-19 tests will be available at convenience stores.
Trump tweets, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Gardner says…nothing.
Gardner refuses to even acknowledge that the Trump administration could be doing a better job of handling the coronavirus outbreak.
Gardner says that it would be “unfathomable” for the Senate to adjourn without voting on another coronavirus relief package. Two days later, the Senate does just that.
Gardner’s unfavorable ratings are now at a solid 50% and rising.
Gardner is featured in a story in The Atlantic about Republicans prostrating themselves in front of Trump.
In a story previewing the fight for the Senate majority in 2020, The Washington Post reports that Republican strategists “have already written off Sen. Cory Gardner.”
President Trump threatens to send in the Army to intervene in social justice protests around the country. Governor Jared Polis speaks out quickly. Gardner says…nothing.
Gardner literally laughs off comments from former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that Trump is trying to divide the country.
Gardner and Republicans spend millions attacking John Hickenlooper ahead of June 30 Primary Election. It doesn’t work. Immediately after the primary election, Gardner overshoots his message against the well-known Hickenlooper by calling him the “most corrupt governor” in the history of Colorado. Fully indicating where the campaign is going, Gardner also unintentionally sets himself up for an inevitable problem in the fall with Donald Trump on the ballot, which comes to a conclusion in the final televised debate.
Gardner and Republicans spent more money attacking Hickenlooper in the Primary than Hick’s actual opponent, Democrat Andrew Romanoff. Hickenlooper beat Romanoff by 17 points. Yet, somehow, Gardner and his campaign concluded that they should stick with THE SAME NARRATIVE through the General Election.
With just a few hours to go until polls close in the Primary Election, the Gardner campaign releases a laughable memo (“Cory Gardner Isn’t Dead Yet Probably”) that inaccurately calls Colorado “the Rocky Mountain state” (the correct answer is: The Centennial State) and lists the wrong margin of victory for his 2014 Senate win. The memo’s conclusion is unfortunate:
In Colorado the floor for candidates from both parties is high and the ceiling is low. Single-digit races are the norm. Democrats will also spin yarns about their bare voter registration advantage. It’s nonsense. For decades, Republicans had a voter registration advantage in this state, but Democrats like Michael Bennet, Mark Udall, Ken Salazar, and even John Hickenlooper were able to win statewide. Independents decide elections in Colorado – they always have and always will. [Pols emphasis]
The next day, a new public poll is released showing Hickenlooper with a 19-point lead over Gardner among Independent voters.
Oh, and then this happens:
A transcript: pic.twitter.com/1b4bElEcvh
— Justin Wingerter (@JustinWingerter) July 1, 2020
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggests that vulnerable Republicans start to distance themselves from Trump.
Gardner gets crushed for introducing a 117-word bill about protecting pre-existing medical conditions that fact checkers agree would do nothing of the sort.
It has become abundantly clear that Gardner’s re-election plan isn’t working. Hickenlooper isn’t sinking and Gardner isn’t rising. Meanwhile Trump continues to flail about and Gardner refuses to break with him. Gardner needs a new approach, but he doesn’t adjust.
When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies, Gardner prostrates himself again on the altar of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, reversing his very public position on confirming a new Justice close to an election and tying himself to the sinking popularity of the Senate Republican majority as they stonewall additional economic relief. The Supreme Court fight also puts the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade fully in the public’s mind.
Trump’s behavior doesn’t get better as the election approaches — it gets worse. Anyone paying attention or doing more than just trying to survive the next news cycle could have anticipated this problem, but Gardner has not laid any groundwork to separate himself from the president. By the time Trump tests positive for COVID, Gardner has said nothing about Trump’s handling of the pandemic, his dismissal of masks, or his attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci. In fact, Gardner has egged on conservative conspiratorial tropes about how the pandemic is an election ploy that will disappear after November.