It's the thinnest of political tightropes, and Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner is trying to walk it.
As one of only three Republican senators representing states that voted for Hillary Clinton last fall (Nevada's Dean Heller and Maine's Susan Collins are the others), Gardner is in a tough position for his re-election. At the exact halfway mark of his six-year term, Gardner is sharpening his voice against Donald Trump as he perhaps attempts to appease the independent voters who helped elect him in 2014. But his task is a tall one.
Gardner is up for re-election in 2020, a presidential year — when turnout increases and often benefits Democrats — while facing the same voters who decisively turned against a president of his own party just fourteen months ago.
It's little wonder that just last week, the normally mild-mannered Gardner went into a rare full-fledged tirade on the floor of the U.S. Senate, admonishing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for breaking a promise to not touch the Cole Memorandum, an Obama-era Department of Justice document that provided some legal protections for pot businesses operating in states that that have legalized. Gardner's scathing bash job of Sessions, and ultimately Trump, grabbed headlines last week in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, which celebrated him as a moderate, and added to the first-term senator's increasingly anti-Trump rhetoric, including a notable August ripping of Trump's comments equating neo-Nazis with protesters following violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"I wish there were more like [Gardner] on both sides. Our politics would be a lot better off if politicians spent more time holding their own side accountable," says local GOP operative Tyler Sandberg, adding that Gardner's comments on Sessions are "a sign of his moderate temperament and independent brand."
But Gardner's rebellion against Trump so far has almost exclusively been confined to rhetoric. As a member of Republican Party leadership and as a longtime conservative dating back to his days in the House of Representatives, Gardner is a safe Republican vote.
FiveThirtyEight's so-called Trump score, which measures a member of Congress's voting record compared to how their individual state voted in the last presidential election, pits Gardner as the single senator whose voting record least corresponds with how his or her state voted in 2016. Because Colorado voted for Clinton by a wider margin than Nevada or Maine (the other two states with GOP senators from states that Clinton carried in 2016), Gardner's voting record is skewed more heavily against him. Still, his voting record almost exclusively aligns with Trump's, with his few disagreements mostly relating to a handful of foreign policy matters. In a state that voted against Trump by 4.9 percentage points in 2016 and where the president's approval rating hovers in the mid-30s, it could spell trouble for Colorado's first Republican senator since Wayne Allard.
"I’m not totally sure about Gardner’s game," University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket says. "Gardner has managed to piss off a lot of his base over the past year, to the point that they actively boo him at party meetings. He mostly makes symbolic protests against some Trump policies, but has pretty much been a reliable vote for the administration on just about all nominations and policy issues. This, of course, has pissed off Democrats to no end. Gardner has plenty of time to make friends, but his path to re-election is looking pretty rocky so far."
That brings up another potential challenge for Gardner: his potential alienation of political bases on both sides of the aisle. Long a target for frustrated liberals, Gardner's initial lack of town-hall forums following Trump's election drew the ire of the left to the point that a cardboard cutout of him sufficed as a sounding board for mock town halls last year. The so-called Sunday Gardner protests also point to Gardner as a continued target for Colorado Democrats, though that's a natural position for the state's highest-elected Republican official. Regardless, the left's frustration with Gardner is clear and uncompromising.
"The media has been way too eager to heap praise on Republicans like Gardner and [Republican congressman Mike] Coffman for token statements against Trump while ignoring the fact that they vote for the Trump agenda around 95 percent of the time," says Colorado Democratic Party spokesman Eric Walker. "Coloradans are sick and tired of Gardner and Coffman saying one thing to their face and then doing the opposite behind their back. Talk is cheap."
Jason Crow, a Democrat vying for Coffman's seat in CO-6, largely agrees.
"Mike Coffman and Cory Gardner have been doing a political two-step with their constituents all year, saying one thing in Colorado and doing the opposite in D.C.," Crow says. "It is not enough to simply tweet objections while our democracy, economy and national security are being threatened day in and day out by this runaway administration. Colorado demands more than empty platitudes; we need concrete action in the form of legislation that puts Colorado first."
Republican Roger Edwards, a primary challenger to Coffman in Colorado's 6th Congressional District who jumped into the race because of Coffman's distancing from Trump, isn't happy with Gardner, either, but for a different reason: for bucking the president.
"Cory Gardner’s foot-stomping show is not productive, and if he withholds nominations as he said he would do, then his [Republican] primary challenger will do well in 2020," Edwards says of Gardner's recent clash with Sessions.
With prominent Republican Trump critics Jeff Flake (Arizona) and Bob Corker (Tennessee) both retiring next January and John McCain (Arizona) battling brain cancer, many of Trump's fiercest GOP attackers are either soon leaving their posts or, in McCain's case, likely to do so. That will leave a major gap in GOP Trump critics in the Senate, particularly with Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) softening his once-critical stance against Trump.
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Could Gardner fill that looming void, perhaps selectively voting against Trump in addition to speaking out against him? It's possible that a poor showing by Colorado gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo, an overt supporter of Trump and his policies, and an overall bad showing by the Republican Party in this year's midterms (Heller's re-election campaign this fall could be a litmus test) could give Gardner a voter-driven mandate to do so heading into the heart of his 2020 re-election campaign. The Gardner camp did not return requests to comment for this story.
"I think his image is more centrist than his voting record," Colorado State political professor John Straayer says of Gardner, who went to CSU and whom Straayer considers a friend. "I think he’s in an interesting situation. I was going to use the word predicament, but that’s not quite right. He’s gotten close to leadership, he’s a part of leadership. That’s good for him and his political career. But the problem with that is, he’s also identified with it. If things look bad for the Republicans, if they take in the shorts in ’18 and ’20 because of public dissatisfaction, Cory could become collateral damage."
Three years is an eternity in politics, and especially so under Trump's administration, in which a morning tweet can signal a generational shift in policy. But as a Republican senator in a state that voted against a Republican president, Gardner's tiptoe through murky political waters is unquestionably going to be a tricky one in the lead-up to 2020.