Where Is Cory Gardner?
DENVER — They keep expecting to see Senator Cory Gardner everywhere — on the local Fox affiliates in Colorado, on Facebook, on literature crammed inside their mailboxes. They are voters who wear tasteful crepe blouses and carry structured Kate Spade totes, who like how their 401(k)’s are performing but say they could do without President Trump’s “temperament.”
They are members of one of the most coveted groups in electoral politics: suburban women. But in their field of vision, Mr. Gardner, Colorado’s top Republican officeholder, is almost nowhere to be found.
“I don’t hear him speaking out on things,” said Jennifer Gremmert, 50, the executive director of an energy nonprofit. She is the kind of voter who could help Mr. Gardner win re-election in November, a registered Democrat who considers herself “nonpartisan,” “not that enthusiastic” about her party’s Senate candidates, and “totally” open to Mr. Gardner. But when it comes to the bipartisan stands that Ms. Gremmert said she prized in a candidate, “I don’t see him.”
On one level, this is strange: Many of these voters were crucial to Mr. Gardner’s narrow Senate victory in 2014, when he carried the suburban vote and was ahead among independents, according to exit polls. And they may be even more essential to him now — he is widely considered to be one of the most at-risk G.O.P. senators seeking re-election this year.
But Mr. Gardner’s invisibility — he hasn’t held a town hall-style meeting in two years — is also pragmatic, a means of avoiding questions about his ties to the divisive president, especially as the Senate impeachment trial nears. If Mr. Gardner ends up vocally supporting the president, or votes to acquit him in the trial, it will complicate and perhaps even endanger his race to hold onto his seat.
Unlike most Republican senators, Mr. Gardner has been largely mum on the articles of impeachment against the president and the Senate trial starting Tuesday. Early in the process, he called the impeachment inquiry a “total circus,” but notably refused to answer questions about whether the president’s conduct with Ukraine had been appropriate.
Mr. Gardner hasn’t indicated one way or the other whether he’d vote to subpoena witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, even as some other senators facing tough re-election fights, like Senator Susan Collins of Maine, have expressed an openness to doing so. Last week on Capitol Hill, he evaded reporters eager to pin down his thoughts, his handler hurrying him into the nearest elevator. On Thursday evening, when a local Colorado reporter caught him at the Denver airport, a smiling Mr. Gardner offered still no clarity. “We have a trial,” he said. “That’s where we’re at right now.”
While Ms. Collins and some other senators open to calling witnesses have been critical of the president at times, Mr. Gardner is far more circumspect about Mr. Trump, and relies heavily on Republicans and conservatives for votes — people who are intensely loyal to the president.
But if Mr. Gardner is going to win in 2020, in a state that votes Democratic in presidential elections, he is also going to need voters like the women who joined Ms. Gremmert for lunch on a recent Friday in Denver’s Greenwood Village. They consider themselves moderate Republicans and likely to support Mr. Gardner, but want to hear him make a case for himself and his record.
“I think his presence is being overshadowed by Donald Trump,” lamented Sandra Hagen Solin, a 51-year-old Republican who runs her own lobbying firm. “He needs to get his message out.”
That message, many Republicans insist, is a strong one. Mr. Gardner’s supporters often note how in the last four years, he has had more legislation signed into law than the rest of Colorado’s congressional delegation combined. But such is the trade-off, perhaps, of Mr. Gardner’s disappearing act: While it allows him to sidestep uncomfortable questions about the president, it also prevents him from aggressively promoting the record that Republican strategists believe he can win on.
Dick Wadhams, a veteran Colorado Republican operative, was not bashful about calling out Mr. Gardner’s fear of public exposure. “If I had one criticism of him,” Mr. Wadhams said, “it’s that his team keeps him locked up in a fortress.” (Mr. Gardner and his aides did not return multiple requests for comment.)
Impeachment has served only to highlight Mr. Gardner’s silence, whether on his own record or the national issues du jour, according to other Colorado Republicans. His caginess has frustrated some Trump supporters in Colorado, whose votes Mr. Gardner will almost certainly need to prevail in November, when Democrats are likely to come out in force in the presidential election.
“I think he wants to please everybody, but he needs to be more transparent,” Angela Carr, a 44-year-old flight attendant, said at the Denver Republican Party’s recent monthly breakfast.
Ms. Carr, who said she became a Republican “because of Trump,” recalled the October day that Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a resolution condemning the House impeachment inquiry. “We’re watching all the other Republican senators sign on it, and we’re like, ‘O.K., Cory …’” she said. “And he finally did toward the end, but you kind of want to see your guy or gal more out there.”
She and others at the Denver breakfast acknowledged the political considerations that prevent Mr. Gardner from mirroring the approach of a Southern lawmaker like Mr. Graham on impeachment. In 2016, Mr. Trump lost Colorado to Hillary Clinton by just under five percentage points. In 2018, Democrats swept every statewide office in Colorado in what was largely seen as a rebuke to Mr. Trump’s administration. And now, Mr. Gardner, according to Morning Consult, has an approval rating of just 36 percent.
But many Republicans were quick to point out that Mr. Gardner is no stranger to long-shot races and the complicated political dynamics that come with them.
In 2014, Mr. Gardner, then a congressman, challenged Senator Mark Udall in a race where “Cory was seen as a dead man walking,” according to Tyler Sandberg, a Colorado Republican operative. The reason: Just two years earlier, President Barack Obama had beaten Mitt Romney in the state by more than five points.
But Mr. Gardner won his seat in 2014 by 2.5 percentage points, or about 50,000 votes, in a year when Republicans flipped nine Democratic-held seats nationwide and took control of the Senate. He was able to do so in large part, Mr. Sandberg said, “because he refused to let himself be pigeonholed into something he wasn’t.”
In his campaign, Mr. Udall sought to characterize Mr. Gardner as an extreme social conservative, which Mr. Gardner — in a steady stream of television ads, digital media and public appearances — consistently pushed back on.
It’s an approach that Republican strategists believe would work well in this environment, too, as some Democrats try to portray him as too pro-Trump and some conservatives criticize him of being not pro-Trump enough.
“I’m confused as to why he’s not out on the stump more, because that’s what he was so good at in 2014,” Mr. Sandberg said.
In addition to not holding a town hall event since August 2017, Mr. Gardner has no upcoming events listed on his Facebook page. In an August 2019 editorial, The Greeley Tribune, which serves Mr. Gardner’s former congressional district, criticized the senator for his dearth of public events. “Gardner has been largely absent during the past five years when it comes to being available for his constituents, to whom he needs to be accountable,” the editorial board wrote.
And on impeachment, he has rankled even local talk radio hosts for dodging interviews. In late November, Steffan Tubbs, who hosts a Denver station owned by the conservative broadcast company Salem Media, told his viewers that Mr. Gardner’s team had declined a request to interview the senator about “the impeachment inquiry, campaign, and Thanksgiving plans.” Mr. Tubbs, who called Mr. Gardner “a friend,” criticized the senator for his “crickets” during “a very critical time in this administration.”
Some Republican voters sympathize with Mr. Gardner’s predicament. In his last town hall event, which was his first in a year, Mr. Gardner was all but shouted offstage by liberal protesters as he tried to explain his efforts to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act.
“I don’t blame a senator or congressman for trying to find another way to engage that’s actually productive and collaborative,” said Debbie Brown, the president of the Colorado Business Roundtable, who considers herself a moderate Republican.
But other observers think he missed an opportunity, if only to make a point about liberals like those who shouted him down. “I thought Cory should have held one town hall after another right away, then stopped them on the grounds the left was so asinine,” said Lynn Bartels, a former longtime political reporter in Colorado.
Mr. Gardner’s supporters are optimistic that once voters hear the extent of his record “separate from Trump,” as Ms. Solin put it, his stance on the president will matter less. His supporters point to his yearslong effort to relocate the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, D.C., to Colorado, which the administration has announced as officially underway. They also promote his work with Democrats including Senator Elizabeth Warren to allow cannabis businesses access to the banking industry in states like Colorado, where marijuana is legal.
Mr. Gardner is likely to end up facing John Hickenlooper, the former Democratic governor now running for Senate, in the general election, and he will probably maintain many Republican votes — even if cast grudgingly.
At the recent Denver G.O.P. breakfast, where some people wore “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great” hats, but where Mr. Gardner’s campaign was limited to a leaflet, Herb Glasser, a 54-year-old public accountant, said he planned to support Mr. Gardner despite resigning himself to being “unhappy” with the senator a long time ago.
“We have no choice,” said Mr. Glasser, who described himself as a “true conservative.”
According to Mr. Sandberg, the G.O.P. operative, it’s now up to Mr. Gardner’s campaign to reach those Coloradans who, despite their disdain for the president, might still be persuaded to give his party a chance.
Voters, perhaps, like Amy Conklin. Ms. Conklin, a former Littleton City Council member, is a registered Democrat, but says she has long “put out yard signs for both sides.” She was a legislative aide when Mr. Gardner was a member of the state House, and remembers him as “a really good legislator,” someone who “would reach across the aisle.”
Her feelings since have changed. “I’ve been intensely disappointed in his behavior since he’s gone to Washington,” she said.
Ms. Conklin conceded that Mr. Gardner had done some good work in the Senate. But what looms largest in her mind, what she says she’d be hardest pressed to forget, are a handful of photographs she’s seen of Mr. Gardner, including one from last winter, in which she described him as “smiling and waving, following Trump out of Air Force One.”
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