DENVER (AP) — Six years ago, Colorado Democrats failed to convince enough voters to reject Cory Gardner's bid for the U.S. Senate. Their warnings that the Republican could, someday, be the confirming vote for a Supreme Court justice who could overturn Roe v. Wade proved ineffective.
Now Gardner, 46, is poised to be one of the votes that places President Donald Trump's nominee Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court just before the election. And Democrats think they have the votes to punish him for it.
Gardner has long been considered both one of the nimblest Republican politicians and also one of the most vulnerable. His 2014 run was praised as the best Senate campaign that year for defusing Democratic attacks about his role in a “war on women” and staying on message. But he's also a Republican in a state that has shifted sharply to Democrats since Trump was elected — the president lost the state by 5% in 2016 and then Democrats won the governorship by 11% and every other statewide race in 2018. Gardner has struggled to escape the president's long shadow.
“Luck and timing are everything in politics, and Cory's on the wrong end of all these elements," said Mike Stratton, a Democratic strategist who advised the man Gardner ousted in 2014, Sen. Mark Udall.
Gardner is now up against John Hickenlooper, a popular former two-term governor of Colorado and Denver mayor.
Gardner's reelection hinges on convincing the state's crucial slice of independent voters he's a nonpartisan problem-solver who will look out for the state. On the campaign trail, he's emphasized his work on state-centric, uncontroversial issues — moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to western Colorado, co-writing a bill to fund maintenance at national parks and creating a national suicide prevention number.
“I vote 100% of the time for the people of Colorado,” Gardner said during a debate Friday evening..
But Gardner's also been a reliable vote for his party under Trump. The president praised Gardner for being on his side “100% of the time” at a rally in February, and voters got another reminder of that when Gardner said he supports Barrett's nomination. Republicans acknowledge that may be enough to prevent him from escaping Trump's downward pull.
“I'm saying a prayer he doesn't get swept out by our president,” said Linda Heintz, 71, a registered Republican in suburban Denver who plans to vote early for Gardner. Heintz still hasn't decided whether she can vote for Trump but figured Gardner was a no-brainer.
“He's done nothing to not deserve reelection,” she said, acknowledging she doesn't think many others in the state agree with her view.
Joan Kresek doesn't. The 65-year-old graphic design professor is an independent-turned-Democrat who exemplifies Colorado's transformation from a swing state into an increasingly blue bastion.
“Cory Gardner is attached to Trump, whom I'm 100% against,” Kresek said, saying Gardner's support for a rapid replacement to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “is what he stands for.”
GOP pollster David Flaherty noted that the Barrett nomination is especially difficult for Gardner. The independents he needs to win aren't just non-partisan, they're anti-partisanship, disliking even “the impression of partisan decision-making,” he said. Republicans' push to confirm Barrett before the election, when they thwarted Democrats' attempt at a less-rushed confirmation four years ago, is a tough sell.
Laura Chapin, a Democratic operative who focuses on abortion rights, noted that Coloradans will also be voting on a ballot measure backed by conservatives that would ban abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy. They're also facing the prospect that Barrett could vote to overturn the court decision protecting a woman's right to have an abortion, and rule against the Affordable Care Act. In 2014, it was easy for Gardner to dismiss these scenarios as partisan fever dreams.
“We were dealing with hypotheticals,” Chapin said. “We're not in the realm of the hypothetical anymore.”
Gardner exemplifies the bind several Republicans have found themselves in during the Trump era. In 2016, he reluctantly endorsed Trump, only to withdraw his endorsement after the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed Trump had boasted about sexually assaulting women.
But once Trump was elected, Gardner tied himself to the president. In 2018, he lead the GOP's effort to win Senate seats, and advocated for candidates to tout their support of the president. He's carefully expressed displeasure at some of Trump's more controversial statements, such as the statement that there were “good people” on both sides of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville. At Friday's debate, Gardner without hesitation condemned the extremist group known as the Proud Boys and white supremacism — two things Trump would not do on the debate stage last week.
But Gardner has generally been a reliable vote for Trump's top priorities, including repealing the Affordable Care Act. He has voted to confirm conservative judges and against removing the president from office following his impeachment.
Gardner swiftly endorsed Trump's reelection in early 2019, and during the rally in late February, Trump returned the favor. “Cory is a champion for the people of Colorado,” Trump told a packed arena in the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs.
Democrats have repeatedly tied that around Gardner's neck. “Cory Gardner has stood beside him 100% of the time, he has supported Donald Trump 100% of the time,” Hickenlooper said at a recent debate, where he also repeatedly noted Gardner's support of Barrett's confirmation.
Hickenlooper also repeatedly dismissed barbed attacks from Gardner as “typical Washington” and said “new blood” is needed in the capitol.
It's an ironic echo of how Gardner won in 2014, when he tied the incumbent Udall to then-unpopular President Barack Obama, portrayed himself as a fresh face and promised in one ad that “when my party is wrong, I'll say it.”
Stratton, the Udall strategist, was bemused by the parallels. “Six years later, Gardner is Udall to some extent,” he said.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.