Republicans are excited that Coloradans will soon get to know Cory Gardner, their best hope to unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
Udall also can’t wait for Coloradans to get to know Gardner, who is in his fourth year as a representative in the most unpopular Congress in the history of political polling.
Gardner, the congressman from Colorado’s Eastern Plains, turned Colorado’s Senate race from a snooze into one of the hottest contests in the country when he got in a week ago.
Now, the race is on to define Gardner’s image in the minds of Coloradans who don’t know him yet.
Until this month, Gardner seemed to have a promising future in the U.S. House as an up-and-coming young member in a safe district. He’s trading that future for a shot at giving Republicans Colorado’s Senate seat, and along with it, maybe control of the whole Senate.
“I’m 39 years old, and I could stay in a perfectly safe Republican seat, but if we don’t change the course of this country, we haven’t accomplished anything,” Gardner said.
Gardner has multi-generation roots in the Eastern Plains, where his family runs a farm equipment dealership in Yuma. He graduated from Colorado State University and the University of Colorado law school, and he worked for Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., early in his career.
“He’s a normal guy. He busts his butt for everything he has earned,” said state Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, who has known Gardner since they worked together Allard’s office.
“He doesn’t come from money. He doesn’t come from a political family. He doesn’t owe anyone anything,” McNulty said.
Republicans appointed Gardner to fill a vacancy in the state Legislature in 2005, and he quickly developed a reputation as a skilled legislator.
He was often at the front of the House chamber with party leaders, drafting amendments on the fly to get Republican bills passed, or at least make Democrats take tough votes that would haunt them at the next election.
“Cory’s very bright, and he has a strong mind for strategy,” McNulty said. “When you couple that with the fact that he doesn’t have an ego, it’s a remarkably effective combination.”
Gardner was one of four young Republicans identified as “rock stars” in a 2006 Rocky Mountain News story. Of the four, he’s the only one who is still serving in elected office.
He got along well with Democrats in Denver, too. But they rarely shared the same views on politics.
In the Legislature, Gardner sponsored several versions of the “Make My Day Better” law, which would have allowed business owners to use deadly force against intruders. Republicans introduce the bill almost every year, and it has never passed.
Gardner also sponsored bills to prohibit state employee unions and to cut the state wildlife agency’s power over drilling permits. Those failed, but he won bipartisan support for laws to forgive student loans for rural teachers and strengthen penalties for child pornography.
Although Gardner was a popular member of the state Legislature, he’s spent the last three years accumulating a voting record in the U.S. House at a time that Congress has earned historically low approval ratings. A survey during last year’s government shutdown found just 8 percent of Americans approved of Congress, making the institution less popular than the Internal Revenue Service, jury duty, hemorrhoids and dog poop.
But Gardner points to the Democratic-controlled Senate as the problem. He’ll be pushing what he calls a “four corners” message, stressing the need for action on the economy, education, energy development and the environment.
“I am committed to being in every nook and cranny of Colorado over the next nine months,” he said.
Gardner voted with the Republican majority on the most controversial issues of the last few years. He’s voted dozens of times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he supported Republican strategy to shut down the government last October unless “Obamacare” was delayed or repealed.
He also voted for the budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which would have ended Medicare for anyone under age 55 and replaced it with a voucher to buy private insurance.
The Udall campaign had been geared up to fight Ken Buck, who gained national notoriety in 2010 as one of a handful of Tea Party candidates who lost Senate races Republicans could have won.
When Buck was the frontrunner, the Udall camp was quiet. That all changed when Gardner hopped into the race.
In the last week, Udall and his allies have sent out several press releases that try to define Gardner as a hard-right politician.
“We’ve swapped one reckless Tea Partier for another,” Udall campaign manager Adam Dunstone said. “But unlike Ken Buck, Congressman Gardner will be held to account for the out-of-touch votes he cast in Congress. His voting record placed him in the top ten most conservative members of the House, while radicals like Rep. Tom Tancredo never cracked the top 50.”
Udall’s team pointed to the 2012 National Journal rankings, which pegged Gardner as the 10th most conservative House member.
In 2013, Gardner was the 98th most conservative – about the middle of the pack for Republicans – in the National Journal rankings, which tally all the votes Congress takes.
Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, sent out a press release to remind people of Gardner’s support for the gas and oil industry.
“Today, big oil and big polluters are opening their check books and looking to cash in their long time support of Representative Cory Gardner,” Maysmith said.
And Udall’s campaign turned to state Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, to bring up Gardner’s opposition to allowing children whose parents brought them across the border illegally to remain in the country and go to college.
“Congressman Cory Gardner’s positions align him with extreme anti-immigrant voices like Tom Tancredo,” Pabon said.
Gardner says the criticism is a signal that he’s a threat to Udall.
“They know they’ve got a long, uphill fight for the next nine months,” Gardner said.