Let's face it: Cory Gardner has earned some bad press over the years. In fact, it might be easier — or at least more popular — to enumerate the low points in the incumbent Republican senator's career. From his renowned invisibility to constituents (leading to the “Cardboard Cory” movement) to his consistent and enthusiastic support of a president whose policies — and very nature — engender precious little support from the Coloradans he’s supposed to be representing, Gardner’s six-year tenure has been…controversial? Troubled? Lamentable? There are as many words to describe it as there are voters in Colorado, but one of them definitely wouldn’t be “pretty.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been highlights, both in his time as Colorado senator and in his political life previous to it. A person doesn’t head to Congress without some good luck and some good moves, and Gardner has seen both. Here are some of the moments he'll want voters to remember come November:
His 2005 Appointment to the State House
Appointed to take over the District 63 House seat from Republican Greg Brophy when the latter was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Colorado State Senate (Brophy's super-mature ACLUSUX personalized license plate made news of its own in 2009), Gardner had previously been legislative director for Senator Wayne Allard. He took advantage of the opening to start a political career of his own.
The Win to Keep His Seat in 2006
Gardner won the District 63 seat in his own right in 2006, running on a platform that he described in a Denver Post interview as fighting to “protect the pioneer dream.” What that meant, at least fourteen years ago, included water conservation — perhaps a precursor to the Great American Outdoors Act that he’d successfully champion years later.
Gardner’s Rainy-Day Fund
Some of Gardner’s other core issues might be surprising, given the many votes he’s more recently cast that line up with the Trump agenda. Most significant may be the Rainy-Day Fund he proposed to protect Colorado from the more draconian elements of Douglas Bruce’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). But that’s not all: He also spoke about economic support of rural communities, including the government funding of health care. It might seem like ancient history for the Cory Gardner of today…but it does explain how, at the time, some people allowed themselves to be persuaded that he was a moderate.
Moving Up to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010
Gardner moved to the national stage in the 2010 elections — the same year that a GOP wave was crashing across the American electorate. He defeated Democratic incumbent Betsy Markey with a platform of traditional fiscal conservatism, embracing the Tea Party response to the 2008 financial crisis — a concern over spending and government overreach that stands starkly at odds with what the GOP has come to stand for during the era of Trump.
Winning Re-Election in 2012
Gardner’s re-election in 2012 was relatively easier than his earlier wins, in part because of significant redistricting that shifted Larimer County and Fort Collins into a different district. Gardner ran unopposed in the Republican primary, and went on to defeat Democratic opponent Brandon Shaffer by more than 20 points.
The Denver Post Endorsement
In a surprise move that the New Republic called “baffling” and Salon called “asinine,” the Denver Post went out on an inadvisable limb and endorsed Cory Gardner for the 2014 senatorial seat then occupied by Mark Udall. The editorial claimed that Gardner would bring “fresh leadership, energy, and ideas,” and that the common objection to his candidacy — namely, his staunch opposition to a woman’s right to choose — was baseless. “Contrary to Udall’s tedious refrain,” the Post editorial surmised, “Gardner’s election would pose no threat to abortion rights.” Calling this endorsement inadvisable isn’t opinion, by the way — the Post would go on to retract the endorsement and apologize for it five years later. File that under “Too Little, Too Late.”
Taking Mark Udall’s Senate Seat
The Post’s endorsement is thought to have been instrumental in the outcome of the election; Gardner won his Senate seat by less than 2 percentage points. And in the deep-purple Colorado election of 2014, it was a turning point in Cory Gardner’s political life.
Gardner’s claim of being a moderate, despite being a core part of his initial appeal, was never really evident, though he did choose his positions wisely enough to maintain a strong bipartisan rating by the Lugar Center and Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Based on his co-sponsoring record, Gardner was ranked eighth most bipartisan senator in 2017, fifth in 2018, and third in 2019. Important details for a candidate who wants to be seen as a centrist, especially in Colorado.
The Embrace of Trump
Despite cultivating a carefully crafted bipartisan reputation, Gardner has also voted with Donald Trump nearly 90 percent of the time. This has not gone unnoticed by Trump, who loves nothing more than basking in the adulation of those who admire him (or are able to pretend to do so). While this may endear Gardner to a segment of the Colorado voting population, the state is more blue than purple these days, and so his allegiance to Trump is also the primary attack line for his electoral opposition. Still, getting the imprimatur of a sitting President of the United States is no small matter, even when that president is as small as Donald Trump.
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The Great American Outdoors Act
No, no one is calling it “Gardner’s Law,” despite what his re-election ads might claim. (They should also stop trying to make “fetch” happen.) It’s inarguable that the popular legislation is a feather in Gardner’s political cap, but he wasn’t alone in bringing it into being; it had wide bipartisan support, including a co-sponsorship from Senator Michael Bennet. Whether that one feather will allow Gardner to fly back to Washington, D.C., next year — well, that’s the question Colorado voters will face this fall.