Gardner’s Inability to Shake Trump Sticks Him on Path to Defeat

  • Republican trails Hickenlooper in must-win race for Democrats
  • Colorado trending blue, Trump’s unpopularity hurt incumbent

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A Democratic ad that aired in Colorado described Sen. Cory Gardner and President Donald Trump as sticking together “like peanut butter and jelly.”

That’s an unappetizing image for Gardner, a first-term Republican whose fate is glued to an unpopular president in a race against former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper has maintained a healthy lead in the polls in a state that’s trended increasingly Democratic over the past decade, as it grows with an influx of Californians and minorities. It’s one of only two Senate seats held by a Republican in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — the other is in Maine — and it’s a cornerstone of the Democrats’ drive to regain control of the chamber.

“Colorado has moved clearly into the Democratic camp, Donald Trump is not their cup of tea, and it’s pretty obvious that Trump is going to lose Colorado rather badly,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “That pretty much condemns Cory Gardner to being a one-term senator.”

Democrats’ confidence in winning the seat has grown so much that Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and aired the peanut butter and jelly spots, recently canceled its remaining TV buy in Colorado and moved the $1.2 million to races considered more competitive.

A Senate Majority PAC TV ad stuck Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) to President Donald Trump.

Hickenlooper, who launched a Senate bid after dropping out of the presidential race, has relentlessly sought to keep voters’ attention on Gardner’s backing of the president’s priorities — including an election eve bid to fill a Supreme Court vacancy rather than a full-court press for a new pandemic stimulus plan.

Jessica Taylor, Senate editor of the Cook Political Report, said that’s a smart approach, as Trump isn’t faring well with Colorado’s increasingly diverse and highly educated population.

“Those are exactly the kind of voters that Republicans are having deep trouble holding on to and that is something that spells doom for Cory Gardner, who has struggled to distance himself from the president,” Taylor said.

Taylor added that she expects Trump, who lost Colorado by 5 percentage points in 2016, “to lose the state by double digits this time.”

Hickenlooper led Gardner 48% to 40% in a poll conducted Oct. 5-9 by the University of Colorado/YouGov. Trump trailed Democratic nominee Joe Biden by 11 points.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) was unsuccessful running for president but is poised to win a Senate seat.

Robust Fundraising

Hickenlooper has also been bolstered by robust fundraising, including $22.6 million in the third quarter, which he ended with $7.2 million still in the bank. Gardner’s campaign reported raising $7.8 million and having $6.8 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30.

Gardner has tried to stay on the offense by raising questions about charges Hickenlooper violated ethics laws by accepting air travel from a political donor when he was governor. But at almost every turn he finds himself defending his allegiance to Trump and his agenda, including during a series of recent candidate debates.

At the close of the fourth and final debate last week, both candidates were asked to answer a yes-or-no question about whether Trump is moral and ethical. Hickenlooper responded “no.” Gardner said “yes” and immediately added, “I wish he could be more specific in his communications with the American people.”

Gardner’s backing of Trump and his votes against the Affordable Care Act have been the target of Hickenlooper’s ads. Recent Gardner ads used images of Presidents John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Trump to play up his bipartisanship and bills he cosponsored.

Gardner said he’s written more new laws than all other members of the state’s delegation, half under Obama and half under Trump. He’s also playing up in ads and on the campaign trail the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act (Public Law 116-152) that he cosponsored and helped convince Trump to back. That measure funds land conservation projects throughout the country.

Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) joins President Donald Trump on stage during a Keep America Great rally in Colorado Springs on Feb. 20.

Changing Demographics

Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant, said Gardner has run a great campaign and outperformed Hickenlooper in the debates, but that ultimately may not make any difference given the state’s changing demographics and the intensity of the opposition to Trump.

“I suppose you could say Cory could have been more critical of Trump, but that would have come at some cost of the Republican base,” said Wadhams, a former state Republican Party chairman.

Colorado has turned more blue and the national political environment is far less favorable for Republicans than when Gardner first won in 2014, when he narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. Democrats swept all statewide races in 2018, including the governor’s office.

Wadhams said the tough political environment for Republicans in part reflects an influx of newcomers in the past several years. There are almost 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, with more than 40% of voters unaffiliated, according to the Colorado secretary of state.

“They are younger, they are well-educated, and they are generally anti-Trump,” Wadhams said.

The transplants come from all over but particularly California, said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, who noted that more new residents come from Los Angeles than any other county. Masket also emphasized the influence of the Latino vote, which, according to the Pew Research Center, makes up 16% of the state’s electorate.

“Gardner is a better campaigner and he’s a better public speaker, and that probably helps to some extent, but it doesn’t get him out of the real disadvantage he starts with,” Masket said. “He’s a Republican in a year and a state that’s difficult for Republicans — and that’s what’s really limiting his appeal right now.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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