Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that he plans to keep his place atop the Senate Republican Conference, regardless of whether Republicans maintain the majority in November’s election. Anyone who has followed Colorado politics knows that such a proclamation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have launched a flurry of questions for the state’s Democratic House members regarding whether they support her. Yet McConnell’s announcement barely registered. Nobody scrambled to ask whether Senator Cory Gardner would maintain his fealty to McConnell.
In fact, Gardner has never been seriously pressed on whether he supports the Republican leader.
Why is it that Gardner’s support for McConnell is never up for debate? It’s certainly not due to a lack of coziness between the two. McConnell and his donor network spent lavishly to elect Gardner in 2014. Since taking office, Gardner has returned the favor, siding with McConnell on a stunning 92 percent of his votes. The tandem voting is not a coincidence. Gardner pledged to be an independent leader on the issues closest to Coloradans’ hearts, but time and again, he has sided with McConnell against his constituents’ clear wishes.
Gardner has blocked bills to protect our public lands and reduce prescription drug prices. He has voted repeatedly to gut coverage for Coloradans with pre-existing health conditions. He helped cover up President Donald Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors without so much as requesting a document, and he voted to jam through the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh despite credible claims of sexual assault. None of those decisions align with public opinion in Colorado, but they do share one unifying theme: Where McConnell leads, Gardner will follow.
Even now, McConnell enables the anemic federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, directing bailout funds to big business while stiffing small businesses, and even suggesting we let our state go bankrupt — but Gardner has offered little more than silent assent. After saying it would be “unfathomable” for the Senate to leave for recess without passing relief for cities and states, he quietly backed down one day later.
So why does Gardner continue to back McConnell — and why does nobody question it?
The lack of questions about McConnell certainly can’t be attributed to popularity. Rocky Mountaineer polling found that McConnell is Coloradans’ least favorite politician, less popular than even President Trump.
Of course, there is one thing McConnell has going for him that Pelosi never will — an attribute that instantly endows its wearer with a presumption of power earned: He’s a man.
That’s right. Study after study confirms that women in positions of authority are subject to elevated scrutiny. I’ve seen firsthand how quickly and deeply societal assumptions about what leadership looks like take hold. Take, for example, my former boss, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo. She was on the beach when a mother told her seven-year-old daughter, “Turn around, the Governor is behind you.” The little girl twirled, confused, until she finally asked, “Where is he?”
Those ingrained assumptions are compounded by gender imbalance in the political media and commentariat. Last year, my firm studied who is invited to serve as political analysts on local television broadcasts in battleground states around the country (including Colorado). We were not shocked to learn that men outnumbered women two to one. Nor is it a surprise, then, that support for the nation’s highest-ranking female politician is constantly viewed as an open question, while the man pulling the strings in the Senate hardly gets a second look.
To be fair to political press, Gardner is a hard man to get a hold of. He routinely ducks reporters and rarely answers questions — even from constituents — in a public setting. Still, the double standard is hard to miss. This year, we have a chance to rectify it. Journalists, analysts, advocates and voters should all ask Cory Gardner whether he will continue to stand by McConnell.
Or if he prefers to keep avoiding questions, Gardner could go ahead and take this one off the table. All he has to do is stop marching in lockstep with McConnell and pledge not to vote for him as Majority Leader if he is re-elected.
Consider this an open invitation, Senator.
Marie Aberger is a Denver resident and founding partner at progressive communications firm Be Clear. She is an advisor to Cut the Strings CO, a project of Rocky Mountain Values, and a former member of President Barack Obama’s communications team.
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