Democrats feel confident about flipping Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s seat in Colorado for one simple reason: Republican voters there are leaving the party in droves.
“The moderates are being run out of the party, top to bottom,” said David Flaherty, who runs Colorado-based Republican polling firm Magellan Strategies. “It’s really a math problem for all [GOP] candidates, not just Cory Gardner.”
Colorado voters elected Gardner in 2014, a year where Republican turnout in the state outnumbered Democratic and unaffiliated turnout. But in the Trump era, many disaffected moderates are registering as unaffiliated voters, leaving a bleak numbers game for Republicans. In Colorado’s 2018 midterms, Magellan analysis found Democratic and unaffiliated voter turnout each surged past Republican turnout — powered by women and younger voters.
“2014 is a different political environment like Saturn is to the moon,” Flaherty said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has thrown itself behind former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a popular moderate with a self-described penchant for inserting his foot into his mouth. But the Democratic Senate primary has become contentious in recent weeks, with progressive challenger and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff hoping to capitalize on a series of recent Hickenlooper gaffes and over $2,000 worth of fines Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission slapped on the former governor in early June.
“I believed him, and I still do, when he said he would be a terrible senator and wasn’t cut out for the job and would hate it,” Romanoff told Vox in a recent interview. “It’s not Colorado Democrats that recruited Hick ... it’s the national establishment.”
Despite some last-minute momentum from Romanoff, national progressives haven’t coalesced around him in the same way they have around candidates like Kentucky progressive Charles Booker; Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently endorsed Hickenlooper and Sen. Bernie Sanders hasn’t weighed in. A recent poll by 9NEWS/ColoradoPolitics.com shows Hickenlooper with a 30-point lead.
At this point, Republicans seem pretty confident Gardner will still face Hickenlooper in the fall and are aware it could be a very tight race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has already reserved $6.4 million on TV ads, aiming to blast Hickenlooper for the ethics commission fines.
“This is going to be the albatross around the neck of John Hickenlooper for the next four months,” a GOP strategist told Vox.
But Gardner has a larger albatross around his neck: President Donald Trump.
“Cory Gardner sealed his fate when he endorsed Trump and that’s pretty much it,” said longtime Colorado Democratic strategist Laura Chapin.
Cory Gardner has a Trump problem
The 2014 midterms may have been a wave year for Republicans, but Gardner’s victory in a state that was already trending blue for years was especially bitter for Democrats.
Then a member of the US House, Gardner beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who ran a campaign focused heavily on protecting abortion rights, while Gardner did everything he could to bind Udall’s image and voting record to that of President Barack Obama. Gardner promised that if elected, he’d be an independent voice in Washington, DC.
Politics in Colorado, like Virginia, has shifted quickly and significantly, such that it’s no longer considered an Electoral College swing state. The state’s political identity is more nuanced than it might seem, however. For all of the progressive stances taken on issues like marijuana legalization, voting by mail, universal background checks, and red flag laws (which authorize courts to issue protective orders that take guns away from people considered a danger to themselves or others), there’s a current of fiscal conservatism that runs through the state. That’s evident in Gov. Jared Polis’s attempt to push an income tax cut this year, rather than raise the state income tax at the urging of progressive state lawmakers.
This helps explain why the DSCC is backing a moderate Democrat in the race. Anti-Obama sentiment boosted Gardner and many other Republicans in 2014, but Gardner also won in Colorado by vowing to be a different kind of Republican — one who would happily buck his party, fight for environmental conservation and immigration reform, and govern in a bipartisan way. Gardner called on Donald Trump to step aside from the presidential race in October 2016 after the Access Hollywood tape was leaked (in which Trump bragged about grabbing women by the genitals), and said he wouldn’t vote for him. Trump went on to lose Colorado by 5 points.
Gardner and Trump have now embraced each other wholeheartedly as each stares down reelection. Looking at the political makeup of the state, it’s easy to see how Gardner is caught between a rock and a hard place: He certainly can’t win reelection by alienating Trump supporters in Colorado, but he also might not win reelection with just their support. (Gardner’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment from Vox.)
“Cory had no choice,” Flaherty said. “It was unfortunate for him, but there’s nobody that can run and be critical of this president.”
Democrats’ main line of attack on Gardner will be tying him to Trump and citing a long list of instances where he’s voted in line with the president, Affordable Care Act repeal and GOP tax bill chief among them. Democrats are also hitting vulnerable Republican incumbents for confirming controversial US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Hickenlooper is criticizing Gardner’s vote to approve him.
Republican politicos in Colorado say Gardner will still have to forge ahead with the independent “happy warrior” campaign ethos that got him to the Senate in the first place.
“Trump is not going to win Colorado,” Colorado Republican consultant Tyler Sandberg, who ran former Rep. Mike Coffman’s House campaigns, told Vox. “I think it’s a show, not tell thing. [Gardner’s] got to demonstrate that he’s different.”
Gardner’s attempts to demonstrate bipartisan action are in full swing; he was the lead sponsor of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, which puts $900 million per year toward the Land and Water Conservation Fund and $9 billion over five years toward filling maintenance backlogs in America’s national parks. At the same time, Democrats in the state are highlighting Gardner’s reluctance to back the CORE Act, a Colorado-specific public lands bill introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) that has broad bipartisan support in the state.
Gardner would rather talk about his environmental bill than Trump; when the president recently tweeted a right-wing conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old man pushed and seriously injured by Buffalo police was a part of an antifa “set-up,” Gardner wouldn’t comment. As Politico reporter Burgess Everett showed Republican senators a printout of Trump’s tweet, Gardner said he didn’t want to look at it — he was too busy rushing to the Senate floor for the Outdoors Act bill.
Sen. Gardner has not seen the tweet and didn’t want to look at it. Says he’s focused on his outdoors bill on the Senate floor and was in a rush to get up there— Burgess Everett (@burgessev) June 9, 2020
Even with Gardner’s obvious Trump problem, Democrats in the state say the incumbent is a shrewd and talented politician who has proved himself tough to beat.
“Cory is slick; he has protected himself,” said former Colorado House Majority Leader Alice Madden, a Democrat. “I don’t think anyone can write him off.”
Some worry the primary has exposed Hickenlooper’s weak spots
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Colorado to Democrats’ chances of taking back the Senate in 2020; since Trump lost the state by 5 points in 2016, his current net approval rating is -13, according to Morning Consult.
Even though many in the state expect Hickenlooper will win his primary on Tuesday, the former governor’s recent performance has given some Democrats in the state pause about how he might perform against Gardner.
June has seen a stretch of bad news for Hickenlooper, starting with the state Independent Ethics Commission’s order that the former governor must pay $2,750 in fines on two charges that he had accepted illegal gifts as governor. Hickenlooper is not seeking to appeal the decision and plans to pay the fines.
“Governor Hickenlooper accepts the Commission’s findings and takes responsibility,” said campaign spokesperson Melissa Miller.
The ethics allegations were initially brought in 2018 by former Republican state House Speaker Frank McNulty, but the process received attention this year in part because Hickenlooper defied a subpoena to testify in front of the state ethics commission via video, before showing up to testify the following day.
State Democrats have grumbled the allegations were a partisan attack. (“Being called unethical by Frank McNulty is like being called ugly by a frog,” Chapin told Vox.) But some have also said Hickenlooper’s campaign should have responded more quickly to settle the ethics complaints before they became a bigger political problem. And amid the national conversation around race and policing, a 2014 video surfaced of Hickenlooper comparing politicians working with political schedulers to slaves being whipped on a slave ship.
Hickenlooper has accepted the ethics commission’s findings and apologized for the 2014 comments. Romanoff, Hickenlooper’s progressive challenger, and Republicans have both pounced.
“I think one of the biggest changes for me has been to go from leading the party here in Colorado to fighting the party here in Washington,” Romanoff told Vox.
As a progressive who is running on Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, Romanoff’s more moderate political record in the Colorado state House has not escaped scrutiny. People who worked with Romanoff when he was Colorado state House Speaker in the mid-2000s told Vox he acted “cautiously” on policy to not lose the Democratic majority to Republicans.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see the positions he took in the primary, that wasn’t what I would have expected from him having served with him for eight years,” said Madden, the former state House majority leader who served with Romanoff. “I think [Hickenlooper] is all about building consensus, which is a little how Andrew used to be.”
Whether Hickenlooper or Romanoff wins on Tuesday, Madden, who initially jumped into the 2020 Colorado Senate primary herself but has remained neutral, said she thinks the thing national Democrats care about the most is the ability to raise enough money to beat Cory Gardner.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “wanted a race where the candidate could take care of themselves,” Madden said. “The DC world is always so skewed, they just thought, ‘Oh, popular governor who raised money — no further inquiry.’”
There’s little recent public polling, but it suggests Hickenlooper’s perception hasn’t taken a huge hit among voters. The Denver9/ColoradoPolitics.com poll showed just 9 percent of likely Democratic primary voters considered the former governor to be “fundamentally unethical,” while 18 percent said they consider him “fundamentally ethical” and another 62 percent said he’s “an ethical guy who made some mistakes.”
Tuesday will be Hickenlooper’s first test of whether he can survive weeks of bad press and come out somewhat unscathed. But Republicans think that even with the state’s inherently bad numbers for Gardner, they might be able to make the most out of the situation facing Hickenlooper as a candidate.
“Hick has had a political glass jaw,” said Sandberg, the Republican strategist. “We just didn’t think he would shatter it with his own punch.”