By MANU RAJU, POLITICO
DENVER — It was a bloodless coup.
Over 10 suspenseful days last month, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) managed to persuade a trio of Republican primary candidates to drop out of the Colorado Senate race — so Gardner could run unopposed instead. Among those he nudged out was a tea party favorite, Ken Buck, who lost a 2010 Senate race and had establishment Republicans fretting he would do so again.
In the process, Gardner single-handedly transformed the political landscape here and nationally, thrusting Colorado to the fore of his party’s efforts to capture the Senate for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The inside story of Gardner’s feat, based on interviews with multiple participants, started with back-channel talks at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. It ended with the congressman assuring one of his would-be foes he’d help pay off her campaign debt. The final result is practically unheard of amid the rampant stories of GOP acrimony since the 2012 election: a figure endorsed by the D.C. establishment prevailing upon the party’s activist wing to step aside, without a whimper of protest.
The feat illustrates the 39-year-old Gardner’s pure political acumen and shows why the party repeatedly urged him to ditch his promising career track in the House for a risky Senate campaign. He’ll take on Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, the scion of a well-regarded political dynasty who has been actively preparing for a tough race for years.
Now Gardner has to pass an arguably tougher test: convincing voters that his staunchly conservative record and past stands on wedge issues like abortion and immigration don’t disqualify him to lead one of the country’s perennial bellwether states.
“We just can’t stay in a safe Republican seat and sit back and watch while this country goes down the wrong path,” Gardner said during a half-hour interview outside a coffee shop in Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood, explaining his decision to run.
Gardner is one of a handful of candidates in purple and blue states who have bolstered the GOP’s quest to pick up six seats needed to win the Senate majority. The party’s prospects have brightened lately because of continued voter anger over the Democratic health care law and a barrage of TV ads by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity hitting vulnerable Democrats such as Udall.
Like other Democrats running in battleground states, Udall is invoking abortion rights and immigration to motivate women, Latinos as well as young people — the kind of voters who helped Obama carry the state twice — to turn out to vote without a presidential race to draw their interest. Polls continue to show a strong majority of Coloradans support abortion rights, and the surging Latino population in the state could be critical in a close race, particularly if GOP voters nominate a hard-line immigration opponent, Tom Tancredo, as their nominee for governor this year.
For Udall, that means painting the largely undefined Gardner as an ideological extremist who’s out of touch with moderate voters in the Denver metro area, where a majority of the state’s population of 5.1 million resides. Democrats adopted a similar strategy in 2010 against Buck, who won his primary challenge over a candidate backed by the GOP establishment only to lose to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet that November.
“Cory Gardner is Ken Buck with a record,” Udall, 63, said in an interview. “The more that the voters of Colorado understand that Cory Gardner’s record is out of the mainstream, the more they’re going to be strongly supportive of rehiring me.”
It also means flatly warning Democratic voters they can’t afford to sit out in November.
“Are you ready to rumble?” Udall thundered at the beginning of a fiery stump speech before a few hundred Democratic activists gathered in a high school auditorium in Arapahoe County, a key battleground in the state. “We’ve got to get people out to vote.”
A softer edge for a staunch conservative
How Gardner defends his votes during his two terms in the House and five years in the state House — while selling himself as a pragmatic alternative to Udall — is his paramount challenge in the race. In his Eastern Colorado conservative House district, he had every incentive to play to his base.
Now that he has to worry about a statewide electorate, Gardner has a choice: He can embrace some of the harder-line positions he’s taken in the past, or he can try and tack to the center, possibly broadening his appeal but exposing him to charges of pandering.
Early indications are he’s opting for the latter course.
In an interview, Gardner appeared to soften a number of his past stands, on issues ranging from taxes to abortion to climate change.
He once cosponsored legislation that would allow abortion only to save a mother’s life; now Gardner stresses he’s backed House legislation that allows exceptions for rape and incest as well. In 2010 he backed a so-called personhood ballot initiative that was rejected by 70 percent of Colorado voters; now he thinks the plan conferring legal rights on fertilized human eggs would be a mistake because it would block access to contraception.
As for taxes, Gardner has previously signed the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge, but when asked if he would do so now, the congressman said: “I haven’t done that, and I won’t.” (A spokesman later said since he’s signed the pledge once, Gardner doesn’t believe it has an “expiration date” and won’t back tax increases as a senator.)
The list goes on: Gardner in the past has expressed skepticism that humans are causing global warming; he wouldn’t say whether he remains dubious. And in 2006, Gardner criticized the so-called DREAM Act aimed at helping young undocumented immigrants; he now speaks in generalities about immigration reform, calling for a comprehensive solution but declining to weigh in on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants or the DREAM Act itself.
Still, despite a voting record that’s been ranked among the more conservative in the House, Gardner is not viewed as a bomb-throwing ideologue on Capitol Hill. To the contrary, he comes across as reasonable, attentive and friendly, and his supporters say that demeanor will go a long way in deflecting attacks that he’s too conservative for the state.
“Our cousin won the Kentucky Derby!” Gardner blared to a woman he had just met at a Meals on Wheels facility in Loveland, Colo., upon learning that he had a mutual, distant cousin — a horse racing champion, no less.
At the facility, Gardner shook volunteers’ hands and peppered them with questions, tagging along as meals were being delivered to the underprivileged. Even then, though, Gardner’s political views came into question.
A woman on a breathing tube made clear that she was relying on Medicaid to survive.
“I was on my death bed, literally,” she told Gardner. “It kept me alive.”
“We got to protect Medicaid,” Gardner told her.
Asked about that episode later, Gardner made clear he opposed Colorado’s move to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. “I don’t know how Colorado is going to pay for it,” he said.
Despite not being well known in much of Colorado, Gardner — and virtually any Republican, for that matter — is running in a dead heat with Udall in the polls, a testament to Democrats’ woes this year and the state’s up-for-grabs status.