Cory Gardner Helps Colorado Set GOP Stage for 2016 and Beyond

Conservative congressman’s race against Sen. Mark Udall illustrates how Republicans need to steer clear of extreme-right positions.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 30: U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) (R) questions Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (L) as she turns around to her aides during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing about the troubled launch of the website October 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. The federal healthcare insurance exchange site has been plagued by problems since its launch on October 1. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
April 6, 2014, 8 a.m.

The Re­pub­lic­an Party’s path to a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity this year lies mostly in a hand­ful of red, largely South­ern states. But no Sen­ate race in 2014 is poised to say more about the GOP’s fu­ture — in 2016 and bey­ond — than the one in Col­or­ado.

The Centen­ni­al State ar­rived late on the midterm map, be­com­ing a mar­quee con­test only after Rep. Cory Gard­ner, who last year pub­licly passed on a cam­paign, re­versed him­self and entered the race against Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Ud­all. And as a pickup op­por­tun­ity for Re­pub­lic­ans, it still ranks be­low prime tar­gets like South Dakota, West Vir­gin­ia, Arkan­sas, and Louisi­ana.

But claim­ing vic­tory in a con­ser­vat­ive state like Arkan­sas re­quires the GOP to per­form well with the kind of white, work­ing-class voters who already over­whelm­ingly lean right. Col­or­ado is dif­fer­ent; if Gard­ner wants to win there, he’ll have to as­semble a more di­verse co­ali­tion of sup­port­ers — the type of ra­cially di­verse, well-edu­cated voters the party’s next pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee will need to win the White House in 2016.

It’s a chal­lenge few Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates have met of late, either at the pres­id­en­tial level or in Sen­ate races. With the ex­cep­tion of 2010, no GOP Sen­ate can­did­ate had de­feated a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate in a blue state — either against an in­cum­bent or in an open-seat battle — since Mel Mar­tinez’s 2004 vic­tory in Flor­ida. Then came the last midterm races. That year, three Re­pub­lic­ans won on tra­di­tion­ally Demo­crat­ic turf — Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Ron John­son in Wis­con­sin, and Mark Kirk in Illinois.

Party strategists are con­fid­ent this midterm year will look a lot like the last one, the kind of wave that would carry a can­did­ate like Gard­ner to vic­tory. But in 2010 Re­pub­lic­ans failed to win against Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mi­chael Ben­net be­cause their nom­in­ee — a loc­al dis­trict at­tor­ney named Ken Buck — held an ar­ray of ex­treme po­s­i­tions on so­cial is­sues. In a de­bate, for in­stance, he com­pared be­ing gay to al­co­hol­ism.

What makes Gard­ner’s can­did­acy in­triguing, and why Col­or­ado is such a good test case for fu­ture races, is his ap­par­ent de­term­in­a­tion not to fall in­to the same trap. Shortly after an­noun­cing his can­did­acy, Gard­ner re­nounced his sup­port for “per­son­hood” le­gis­la­tion, which would grant fer­til­ized eggs the same leg­al pro­tec­tions as people. The con­gress­man said he did so be­cause he came to real­ize that such a law would also ban some types of con­tra­cep­tion.

Demo­crats de­ride Gard­ner’s switch as one born not of con­vic­tion but polit­ic­al op­por­tunism; re­gard­less, there’s little doubt that op­pos­ing such a meas­ure is help­ful in the state: Col­or­ado voters over­whelm­ingly re­jec­ted a bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive on per­son­hood in 2010.

“Ken Buck had the lead go­ing in­to Oc­to­ber, and he ended up los­ing be­cause he said some things that made him un­ac­cept­able to enough Re­pub­lic­an and un­af­fili­ated wo­men in the sub­urbs that they voted for Sen­at­or Ben­net,” said Dick Wadhams, a GOP strategist in Col­or­ado.

So­cial is­sues, es­pe­cially abor­tion rights and ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion, have been a ma­jor part of the Demo­crat­ic play­book in blue states, and by and large the tac­tic has been ef­fect­ive. Ud­all’s cam­paign has made clear in the early go­ing that it will con­tin­ue to pound Gard­ner’s po­s­i­tion on per­son­hood le­gis­la­tion even after his re­versal.

“Con­gress­man Gard­ner’s ef­forts to hide his real agenda from Col­oradans is af­firm­a­tion of what we’ve been say­ing all along, that he doesn’t share main­stream Col­or­ado val­ues,” said Chris Har­ris, spokes­man for the cam­paign. “Voters will see that he’s not who he says he is.”

Gard­ner’s cam­paign, for its part, is fo­cus­ing on is­sues like the eco­nomy and Obama­care. Lately it’s also pushed Ud­all on wheth­er he backs a pos­sible statewide meas­ure to ban the drilling pro­cess known as frack­ing, a meas­ure that puts the sen­at­or between his lib­er­al base and main­stream voters.

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