Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) was already in trouble this November. But with a looming Supreme Court confirmation battle expected to wrap up right before November 3, Gardner may have sealed his own fate.
The first-term Republican senator from Colorado has long been viewed as one of Republicans’ most vulnerable incumbents. Gardner beat a Democratic incumbent in 2014 in part by promising to be “a new kind of Republican” — one who would work with Democrats and support clean energy.
Now, President Donald Trump looks to be Gardner’s biggest liability in an increasingly blue state.
“Gardner is one of the best incumbents [Republicans] have running; it’s just that he’s running in one of the toughest states for them,” said Cook Political Report Senate editor Jessica Taylor, who recently moved Cook’s Colorado Senate race rating from a toss-up to Lean Democratic. Colorado used to be solidly Republican, but an influx of young, liberal voters has turned the state blue.
Trump is trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden by more than 11 points in FiveThirtyEight’s average of Colorado polls, and polling averages show Gardner running more than 7 points behind Democrat John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, former mayor of Denver, and, briefly, a 2020 presidential candidate. Hickenlooper hasn’t run a perfect campaign, and Republican attacks on him have narrowed the polls slightly. But so far, it hasn’t been enough to overcome the steep odds Gardner faces.
“I think there will be a slice of the electorate who will vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump but will vote for Cory Gardner as well if they can be convinced he’s been an effective senator for Colorado,” said Dick Wadhams, a Colorado Republican strategist and former chair of the state GOP. “That’s Cory’s only path for victory.”
An otherwise middle-of-the-road Republican before Trump came along, Gardner has tried to straddle two sides of many issues. He recently ran an ad that showed him sitting next to his mother, a cancer survivor, and touting a health care bill of his that would protect those with preexisting conditions. The ad failed to mention Gardner’s preexisting conditions bill has no co-sponsors, or that he voted for a GOP bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, which would have eliminated those protections.
And after refusing to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in the spring of 2016 on the grounds that it was an election year, Gardner and other Republicans jumped at the chance to confirm a Trump replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just six weeks before a presidential election. (Gardner’s campaign did not respond to Vox’s request for comment.)
“He’s twisting himself in knots,” Colorado Republican pollster Dave Flaherty told Vox. “Justice Ginsburg’s death is an example. l think that is going to be hard to get away from; that is going to hurt him.”
Gardner struggles to articulate where he actually stands
By the standards of a normally gridlocked Senate, Cory Gardner notched a notable bipartisan achievement in 2020.
He was the main Senate sponsor of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, a bill to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and give the National Park Service nearly $2 billion per year for the next five years for it to take care of much-needed maintenance. The bill passed the Senate and was signed into law by Trump this summer.
“Those two things together make it easily one of the most significant conservation wins in decades,” said Mike Saccone, adviser to the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund. “The funny thing about Washington these days is the parties can’t agree on anything except conservation issues.”
Conservation is a broadly popular issue in Colorado, a state with more than 8 million acres of public lands. According to the 2020 Conservation in the West poll, nearly 70 percent of Coloradans consider themselves conservationists, and 81 percent say that clean water, clean air, wildlife, and public lands are important issues to them when considering political candidates to support. Climate change is also a major issue for the state, which saw its largest wildfire in state history this summer. The Pine Gulch Fire burned about 139,000 acres in two counties, spurred by drought, dry vegetation, and hot summer temperatures.
Gardner “works really hard on this public lands piece because it’s the only thing Republicans can stomach,” said Jeff Navin, the former deputy chief of staff at the US Department of Energy under the Obama administration. “Will that help him? Yeah, but there’s a huge difference between protecting public lands and climate change.”
Climate is an issue where Gardner has a decidedly mixed record. He has openly said he believes in climate change, something that sets him apart from many Republicans, and he ran on promoting renewable energy in his first Senate race in 2014. One of his ads showed him standing next to massive windmills, touting his support for the state’s renewable energy market and natural gas alike.
“What’s a Republican like me doing at a wind farm?” Gardner asked in the 2014 ad. “Supporting the next generation, that’s what.”
But as senator, Gardner’s record isn’t as clear-cut. Though he’s supported bills promoting renewable energy and has fought to increase funding for the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, he also opposed President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Gardner has opposed federal attempts to regulate methane and CO2 emissions, including one methane standard implemented under Hickenlooper’s leadership as governor, according to the Colorado Sun. He voted to confirm two Trump-appointed Environmental Protection Agency heads who were formerly fossil fuel lobbyists. Under Trump, the EPA has overseen a dramatic unwinding of numerous environmental protections.
The president has frequently called climate change a “hoax,” pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, and installed oil and gas executives in key federal environmental positions. Trump also seems to have a particular vendetta against wind power, which he once stated without evidence causes cancer.
In response to California state officials who recently urged him to listen to climate science when combating worsening fires, Trump said, “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
Experts who work at climate-focused think tanks have a range of opinions about Gardner’s environmental record. Some say he’s in a forward-thinking minority of Senate Republicans who actually want to do something about renewable energy.
“I think Sen. Gardner is a bellwether for how the Republican Party is evolving on climate right now, particularly in Congress,” said Sasha Mackler, director of the Energy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “He seems not afraid to use the term climate change, and I think he’s been evolving in his position on the issue.”
Others are less forgiving.
“Cory Gardner, unfortunately he is the example of a Republican Party that has fallen in lockstep behind a maniac,” said Josh Freed, the founder of the Climate and Energy Program at the center-left think tank Third Way. “Gardner is saying to Coloradans, ‘Don’t pay attention to my entire record; pay attention to this one thing.’ Gardner is the neighbor whose willful negligence caused your house to burn down, and he knocks on the door to apologize by bringing you a potted plant.”
Those in Colorado who have worked with Gardner in the past say the senator twisting himself in knots is not unusual.
“I know Cory and I served with him,” said former Colorado House Majority Leader Alice Madden, a Democrat. “He has been the king of trying to make everybody happy without doing a lot.”
Even with Gardner’s work on the Great American Outdoors Act, he hasn’t supported the CORE Act, a Colorado-focused public lands bill sponsored by his Democratic colleague Sen. Michael Bennet. Rather than opposing it outright, Gardner has instead left the bill hanging without taking a position, according to multiple sources.
“I’ve often had a more difficult time nailing down where his position actually is,” said Jonathan Houck, a commissioner in Colorado’s Gunnison County. “He doesn’t seem to engage at a level that’s easy to discern off the bat, it takes some digging to get there.”
As a county commissioner, Houck has worked with politicians from both parties. He plans to support Hickenlooper’s Senate bid, citing Hickenlooper’s partnership as governor to help protect a rare species of sage grouse in the local area.
“I’m also supporting him because he’s done the work here,” Houck said. “The western and eastern parts of the state are sparsely populated. When John Hickenlooper was governor, he was governor of the whole state and he didn’t forget about rural folks out here.”
Hickenlooper is putting bipartisanship at the forefront of his 2020 pitch to voters
John Hickenlooper gave national Democrats a brief scare last year when he first demurred on a Senate run to instead pursue a bid for president (one of a whopping field of 27 candidates).
Hickenlooper cuts a distinctly Colorado profile, as a former geologist who started a craft brewery with friends in the 1980s. He entered politics, becoming mayor of Denver and then governor. After a combined 16 years of executive experience, Hickenlooper initially was hesitant to run for Senate, where he’d be just one of 100 senators in a body where leadership makes the bulk of the decisions on what bills make it to the floor.
“This is one of the things that a couple of my neighbors and an old friend Ken Salazar [a former US senator from Colorado], this was how they persuaded me and got me excited about running,” he told Vox in a recent interview. “The skills that you need to be successful in the Senate are exactly the skills you need to be successful as a mayor, as a governor, and as a small-business owner. ... You’ve got to get people to work together. There’s no other choice.”
This is Hickenlooper’s main political message — one that has largely stayed consistent throughout his political tenure. He’s a moderate, and he’s running on his history of bringing opposite political sides in Colorado together on multiple issues, from Medicaid expansion to environmental regulations to capture methane emissions. Despite scant evidence that Senate Republicans are willing to work with the other side, Hickenlooper is stubbornly optimistic that he’ll be able to make bipartisanship happen if he’s elected to the Senate.
“Maybe I’m going to be cruelly disappointed. But I don’t think so,” he told Vox. “I think this is that moment in time where the American people have had enough, that they’ve been pushed into these two tribal camps that won’t speak to each other. If Steve Bullock wins in Montana, and Mark Kelly wins in Arizona, and I win — we’re going to have 10 Democratic senators from the Rocky Mountain West. We are pragmatic. We are problem solvers, by nature.”
I pressed Hickenlooper on whether he’d consider curtailing or eliminating the Senate filibuster should Republicans in the minority use the 60-vote threshold to block legislation. While Hickenlooper emphasized he wants to find bipartisan pathways first, “If push comes to shove, I have to look at everything. There’s no question.”
“I’m not naive, and don’t think that I don’t recognize that Mitch McConnell is an immovable barrier to collaboration in the Senate,” he added. “For the last long period of time, he has staked his reputation on making sure that nobody ever works with anybody else.”
Trump’s unpopularity may be too much for Gardner to overcome
Even though Hickenlooper is running on his affable image as governor, Republicans have still landed some punches during this campaign. They’ve homed in on the Colorado state Independent Ethics Commission’s $2,750 worth of fines on two charges that Hickenlooper had accepted illegal gifts as governor.
Hickenlooper did not appeal the decision, and a campaign spokesperson told Vox this summer that he “accepts the Commission’s findings and takes responsibility.”
Political analysts say the fallout has narrowed the race from double digits to high single digits. But the overall political situation in Colorado is still far more dire for Gardner. Even though he’s the incumbent, Gardner has lately been left looking more and more like the challenger in a race where he’s behind — hitting Hickenlooper with a spate of negative ads coming from his own campaign.
“The fact Gardner has to spend hard-earned dollars to do the negative on his own is an interesting observation [of] where outside money is in a very long list of Republicans that need to be defended by Mitch,” said Flaherty, the Colorado-based Republican pollster.
Even if Gardner has a notable conservation bill in the Great American Outdoors Act, it’s getting lost in the day-to-day news about the Supreme Court confirmation battle and whatever Trump says. This week, the president refused to say whether he’d accept a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the presidential election. Gardner needs Trump voters to win, but he also can’t win without pulling in some Biden crossover voters as well.
“If Trump moves toward losing the state by 10 points, it makes it virtually impossible for Cory to win,” said Wadhams, the former Colorado GOP chair. “He’s got to keep it close enough so Cory can move some of those Biden voters to him in the general.”
Correction, September 25: An earlier version of this article misstated the size of the Senate. If elected, Hickenlooper would be one of 100 senators.