An earthquake hit Colorado politics on Wednesday afternoon, and the tremors are being felt in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Cory Gardner, a second-term Republican from the small town of Yuma on Colorado’s eastern plains, announced (or at least it was reported that he was about to announce) his intention to seek the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Mark Udall rather than seek an essentially certain re-election. [Update: Gardner made it official at an announcement in Denver on Saturday morning.]
Gardner’s move puts Udall, already struggling against barely-known Republicans, in a position where the next polls will likely show him losing his seat to the quarter-century-younger Gardner.
As is typical of Colorado Republican politics lately, the Republican field contending for the Senate seat was, while not a complete disaster, an uninspiring group of at least seven candidates, most of whom had little name recognition and even less money.
The GOP Senate front-runner (at least until Wednesday afternoon), was Ken Buck, former Weld County District Attorney, who narrowly lost the 2010 Senate race to Michael Bennet, an undistinguished slice of political milquetoast, with what most people thought were a series of unforced errors by Buck, including saying on Meet the Press that he believed homosexuality is a choice (which he then compared to alcoholism.)
To be fair, Buck has learned a lot from those mistakes and will be a much better candidate in 2014. However, many (including me) who would like to see him in office representing Colorado dread a flood of replays of 2010 videos which allowed the left to portray him as a “extremist” and caused Buck to lose the women’s vote by 17 percent — and to lose an election in which he had been consistently leading in the polls.
Within hours of Cory Gardner’s entry into the Senate race, Mr. Buck — who clearly knew this was coming — announced that he was dropping out of the contest, endorsing Gardner, and running for Gardner’s current congressional seat, a district that includes Ken Buck’s home and in which he is a well-known and well-respected figure. In effect, Gardner and Buck swapped campaigns.
Buck’s move represents the significance of Gardner’s entry into the Colorado Senate race, namely that unless there is an enormous negative about Cory that suddenly becomes known, he is a shoo-in for the nomination.
State Representative Amy Stephens, arguably the "establishment" candidate in the GOP field, dropped out of the race on Thursday morning, endorsing Gardner and calling him "the great uniter."
The third of the potentially viable candidates pre-Gardner, State Senator Owen Hill, a libertarian-leaning Air Force Academy graduate with Tea Party backing, has said he will stay in the race, with the Tea Party Express exclaiming that "today’s shake-up in the Republican Primary for U.S. Senate...leaves Owen Hill as the clear choice for Tea Party and grassroots activists." Owen is a rising political star in Colorado. I share most of his political philosophy and appreciate his enthusiastically principled approach to government. But as a young man and a first-term state senator, his current effort, especially now with Gardner in the race, is in my view premature.
If Senator Hill is taking his political advice from Tea Party organizations he will stay in this race longer than he should, perhaps attacking Gardner more aggressively than he should, thereby damaging his viability (and the Tea Party's relevance) in future Colorado races by alienating many key players in the state. In short, I believe Owen Hill represents exactly what Colorado's Republican Party should be, but he is not different enough from Cory Gardner to justify risking the exact sort of internecine "family squabble" which has doomed otherwise-viable GOP candidates in this state's recent history. My advice to Owen: Serve in the state senate for two more years while building a base and an organization and then challenge Michal Bennet in the next election cycle when most of the GOP can rally around you.
Cory Gardner is a solid conservative but it will be difficult for Democrats to portray him as “extremist” or as a “far-right winger” even though they are already trying: the Chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party said on Wednesday that “Gardner is just another reckless House Republican when it comes to dismantling Social Security and Medicare, banning abortion and many types of birth control, and irresponsibly putting our economy at risk to advance his political agenda.”
Needless to say, the Democrat reaction is as boring as it is predictable. And such overwrought statements by liberals are wearing thin in a state in which President Obama’s popularity is below the national average and more at risk of falling below 40 percent than of ever again reaching 50 percent.
The problem for the Democrats is that Cory’s voting record places him just slightly to the right of the average Republican. The National Journal ranks him as the 98th most conservative member of the House while the American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime ranking of 87 (out of a possible 100), a comfortable position for a Republican aiming to garner both “establishment” and Tea Party support while also needing to attract moderate or unaffiliated voters. Additionally, the National Journal rankings show Cory relatively more conservative on economic and foreign policy issues, and relatively less conservative (though still to the right of 62 percent of House members) on social issues, again a near-perfect profile for a Republican in the purple state of Colorado.
In addition to being hard to portray as an extremist, Cory Gardner is a good speaker, obviously intelligent (he graduated summa cum laude from Colorado State University and earned his law degree at the University of Colorado), and reasonably well known around the state due to his former service in the state legislature.
And just as important in these days of personality politics, Gardner is engaging, usually smiling, pleasant to talk to (even in disagreement) and, perhaps relevant if you believe studies that show that better-looking candidates tend to have a slight advantage, he’s clearly the handsomest member of the Colorado congressional delegation.
Another plus for Cory, though perhaps slightly offset by its corresponding effect on initial name recognition, is that he hails from farm country. Yuma, a town of 2.4 square miles with population 3,551 (making it the biggest town in the county), is much closer (in distance and mentality) to Nebraska and Kansas than to Denver. His congressional office shelves are lined with detailed miniature farm tractors — representing his family’s farm equipment business back home.
Combining some (but not too much) D.C. experience with a comprehensive understanding of statewide issues facing Colorado and adding a sprinkle of the realistic approach to the world that characterizes rural America and a small business owner, Rep. Gardner has all the elements of a Republican success story — and a Democratic nightmare.
It also helps Gardner attack Mark Udall’s support of Obamacare that Gardner, who kept his private insurance after being elected to Congress, recently learned that his family’s plan was being canceled (along with hundreds of thousands of other Colorado plans, though many were offered higher-priced replacements) due to the president’s imploding “signature achievement.” There is also a simmering issue here of Udall’s office trying to pressure the state Division of Insurance into lowering the reported number of cancelled policies. Unlike Mitt Romney, who was the worst Republican to prosecute the case against Obamacare nationally, Gardner is just the right man for the job in Colorado.
Cory must be feeling confident about his chances, as he is walking away from one of the safest Republican seats in Congress in a district that went for Romney by a nearly 20-point margin.
Gardner’s entry into the race will energize the Colorado Republican base, likely attract far more money (from both within and outside Colorado) than any other candidate would have, and boost the chances of Republicans all the way down the ticket, including for the very important governor’s race, while boosting hopes for the GOP to reclaim the majority in one or both houses of the state legislature.
2014 could represent a complete reversal of the 2010 tidal wave that swept radicals-in-moderates’-clothing into power here in the Centennial State. If I may mix metaphors in a most unprofessional way, we’re not counting our chickens yet, given the Colorado GOP’s near-perfect record of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but at least we may now be on the path to political redemption.
Nationally, with Republicans needing only six seats to retake the U.S. Senate and turn Harry Reid into a bitter but nearly powerless Minority Leader, Gardner’s move is also shaking up the D.C. calculus. Democrats, who were, or at least should have been, quite nervous already, must now be in a near panic.
In a recent Quinnipiac poll, Mark Udall held very narrow leads over several of the pre-Gardner Republican candidates, but he did not poll above 45 percent against any of them despite consistently winning among women by about 20 points. An incumbent who cannot poll at 50 percent, much less being in the low 40s, against a field of largely unknown challengers is in a most perilous situation.
But this poll also portends the key Republican battle ahead — and not just in Colorado — while also explaining why the Democrats’ first major comment about Gardner was related to abortion and birth control: The Democratic “War on Women” rhetoric has been effective, which is why they plan on continuing with that very same strategy.
Unfortunately for Democrats in Colorado and D.C., Cory Gardner is no Richard Mourdock, no Todd Akin, no Christine O’Donnell, and not even Ken Buck. He is an experienced, disciplined, likeable politician. He won’t back away from his socially conservative views, but he also will not allow them to be turned against him as a weapon of division or ridicule.
If Gardner can avoid the unnecessary blunders of so many Republican politicians of recent years while attacking Mark Udall’s record of lying about Coloradoans’ ability to keep our health care plans and voting with the Obama administration’s wishes 99 percent of the time, Colorado is suddenly likely to elect a Republican U.S. senator nine months from now and Harry Reid is more likely than ever to be, at long last, consigned to the dust bin of Senate history where he belongs.