Late yesterday, September 21, following a not-so-subtle nudge by President Donald Trump, Colorado Senator Cory Gardner announced that he would support the nomination of a Supreme Court justice before the November election in order to fill the seat opened by the September 18 passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
By doing so, Gardner, who's facing an uphill race for re-election against former Governor John Hickenlooper, directly contradicted a stance he took in a similar circumstance just four years ago, opening himself up to charges of crass, politically expedient flip-flopping. But political consultant and columnist Eric Sondermann thinks that any choice Gardner made would likely have blown up in his face.
"It's a worst-case scenario in either situation," Sondermann says. "The death of Justice Ginsburg and President Trump's determination, along with [that of Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, to name a nominee was like them telling Cory Gardner and every other vulnerable Republican senator, 'Take this hand grenade. It's going to explode on you, no matter what course you pick.'"
In Sondermann's view, "This was the ultimate damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. There was no good path. There was no safe answer."
Sondermann includes Gardner on a list of Senate incumbents most in danger of losing, along with Arizona's Martha McSally, North Carolina's Thom Tillis, Iowa's Joni Ernst, Montana's Steve Daines and Maine's Susan Collins — "although, to her credit, she got out a little ahead of this" by announcing that the next president should fill the vacancy, he notes. "Cory Gardner's M.O. is never to get out ahead of anything."
As Sondermann suggests, Gardner dodged questions about his Supreme Court position until Trump painted him into a corner on the morning of September 21. When asked if supporting his position would hurt Gardner at the ballot box, Trump responded, "I think it's going to help Cory, I do. I think it's going to help Cory Gardner. He's a great guy, by the way, and very, very loyal to the party and loyal to his state."
Throughout the current campaign, Gardner has tried to promote his independence. But back in 2016, he supported the Republican position that President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Gardner to replace the late Antonin Scalia, who died that February, should be put off until after the next commander-in-chief's inauguration. In his words, "The president who is elected in November should be the one who makes this decision."
That philosophy went out the window when Gardner announced this on September 21: "When a President exercises constitutional authority to nominate a judge for the Supreme Court vacancy, the Senate must decide how to best fulfill its constitutional duty of advice and consent. I have and will continue to support judicial nominees who will protect our Constitution, not legislate from the bench, and uphold the law. Should a qualified nominee who meets this criteria be put forward, I will vote to confirm."
Today Utah's Mitt Romney followed suit, essentially guaranteeing that a nominee will be heard prior to election day.
What impact will Gardner's decision have on his bid to remain in office? Sondermann doubts that it will matter either way. "I think there may be some other senators for whom this turns a possible victory into a defeat. But for Cory Gardner, he was likely headed to defeat anyway — although this may put an exclamation point on it. Colorado is a moderate, increasingly blue state and a pro-choice state," he says, and by "playing ball with Trump and McConnell, he's obviously out of sync with much of the state. He just opens himself up to the hypocrisy charge that he puts party subservience ahead of any consistency."
Yet going the other way would have been equally disastrous, Sondermann feels. The move would have "enraged the Trump base, which doesn't provide Republicans with any latitude for taking a different path. It requires near 100 percent loyalty to the president."
Right now, Gardner's re-election effort is faring better than most observers predicted. Hickenlooper holds just a 7 percent advantage in the latest poll listed by FiveThirtyEight — a margin close enough to justify Republican donors' continued investment in a negative advertising blitz that's painted Hick, a figure known to Colorado voters for decades, as an ethics-free monster. "Cory Gardner is clearly running the superior campaign," Sondermann says, "and John Hickenlooper, who's had the rap of perhaps not being that interested in the job, has not done a lot during the course of this campaign to put that rap to bed. His campaign has been lackadaisical, somewhat disinterested."
Nonetheless, Sondermann continues, "I've consistently said Hickenlooper will win this race. I don't think the combination of Cory Gardner mounting a better-than-expected fight and Hickenlooper mounting a less-than-expected effort changes the outcome. My analysis is that Joe Biden is going to win Colorado by high single digits — eight points or so, although it could be as much as ten. And in this era of party-line voting, you're not going to get that many Biden voters to switch on the next line and vote for Cory Gardner. You might have 2 or 3 percent switch, but not 8 or 9 percent. And that's what it requires if he's going to win."
On the other hand, Gardner's done a helluva job catching that grenade.