"I love to smoke,” says Colorado congressman Cory Gardner, his voice trailing off. His aide’s eyes widen. “Finish that thought!” she says.
The 39-year-old Republican lets out a distinctive belly laugh at his unfortunate pause. After all, marijuana is now legal in the state of Colorado, a fact we had just been discussing moments before I asked Gardner to tell me something most people don’t know about him.
“I love to smoke food,” he clarifies, adding that his wife had bought him his own Masterbuilt smoker for Christmas. “Brisket, chicken, ribs, you name it.”
That’s about as far off-message as Gardner’s ever likely to go, and that self-discipline is part of the reason professional Washington perked up in February when the two-term House member made it known he had changed his mind and would, indeed, challenge Democrat Mark Udall for the U.S. Senate. Those who know him say Gardner is careful and risk averse—not the type of guy to challenge an incumbent senator on a whim. Gardner himself admits that he could have kept his House seat “as long as I wanted to,” but he says he saw an opportunity to make the race competitive.
Republicans are thankful he did. As the cycle began, the GOP field was crowded with disparate representatives of the party’s coalition, including Ken Buck, a candidate who already lost a winnable Senate race in 2010. Party folks had tried to recruit Gardner last year, but he declined. In January, however, he says he began to reconsider. Public polls showed Udall, a reliably liberal House member who had won his Senate seat in 2008, was weak on issues like Obamacare and energy, and a private poll indicated Gardner would be a formidable opponent.
He began making his moves. When Gardner officially announced his candidacy on March 1, two of the Republican candidates, including Buck, dropped out of the race and endorsed him. A third GOP rival did so days later. It was a smooth operation that left him with no serious primary challenge and has allowed Gardner and the Republicans to set their sights on Udall.
“He has a unifying personality,” says Jim Nicholson, the former Vatican ambassador and Veterans Affairs secretary who once served as chairman of the Colorado GOP. “He seems to have come along as the right guy at the right time.”
Rich Beeson, Mitt Romney’s former political director and a GOP strategist from Colorado, is bullish about Gardner, whom he calls a “rising star” in the party. “This is the most excitement I’ve seen around a Senate race in a long time,” says Beeson.
Two polls in March showed Gardner and Udall just a couple of points apart. Prognosticators shifted Colorado into the “toss-up” column. Around that time, conservative outside groups like Americans for Prosperity began running ads in Colorado hitting Udall hard for his support for Obamacare. Like many Democratic senators up for reelection, Udall had repeated the claim that under Obamacare Americans could keep their insurance plans and doctors if they liked them. “The primary promises that Obamacare was sold to the American people on turned out to be lies,” Gardner says.
The Udall campaign and liberal groups have fired back hard on what could be Gardner’s biggest liability in the critical Denver suburbs. ProgressNow Colorado began in March, calling out Gardner for his past support for the controversial pro-life “personhood” ballot initiative that failed in Colorado in 2010. (By legally defining every fertilized egg as a “person” under state law, it would have effectively banned all abortions.) Many mainstream pro-life groups, including National Rightto Life and the Eagle Forum, object topersonhood amendments for being too extreme, and Gardner told the Denver Post in late March that he now opposes personhood efforts. The congressman says he’s pro-life but that he changed his mind about personhood after he learned more about the issue. That hasn’t stopped the Udall camp from making it the focus of its first anti-Gardner ad.
“Congressman Gardner’s history promoting harsh anti-abortion laws is disturbing,” says a female voiceover as a rainbow coalition of stone-faced women look disapprovingly at the camera. “But Mark Udall protects our right to choose, our access to birth control.”
Gardner shakes his head at the implication that he’s too extreme. “When people look at my record, they’re going to know that Senator Udall is simply repeating what they think will work—which is nothing more than a tired, sad playbook—because he can’t run on his record,” he says.
Notwithstanding the war-on-women strategy, Democrats may find Gardner difficult to demonize. He looks youthful, apart from his salt-and-pepper hair, and his ever-present grin makes him instantly likable. He often starts his answers with a hail-fellow-well-met guffaw, particularly if it’s a question he’s not keen on answering. Gardner’s humor is light-hearted and usually directed at himself. He tells me about growing up working at his family’s business, a farm implement dealership (“red tractors, not green”) in his hometown of Yuma in eastern Colorado.
“They let me do some incredible, high-skilled tasks like sweep the floors, clean the bathrooms,” he chuckles. “Twenty years later, they still let me sweep the floors and clean the bathrooms.”
After graduating from Colorado State and the law school of the University of Colorado, Gardner ran his first race for the state legislature in 2004, in a heavily rural and agricultural district. “I ran for office going around eastern Colorado telling people I had met most of them at the implement dealership, that I had sold half of them the wrong parts,” he says. “And I actually had to quit using that line because people started shaking their heads.”
A fifth-generation Coloradan, Gardner still lives in Yuma, in a house once owned by his great-grandparents, with his wife Jaime and their two children. He says his kids are the main reason he opposed Colorado’s marijuana legalization when it was on the ballot in 2012. I jokingly suggest he could have supported it to be a “cool dad,” and he briefly turns serious. “I think being a cool dad is doing the right thing for your kids,” he says.
Gardner is keenly aware of the politics of pot. Legalization remains popular in Colorado (an April Quinnipiac poll shows 52 percent still support it), and so he tries to steer away from the issue. “The Founders intended the states to be laboratories of democracy, and Colorado is now deep in the heart of the laboratory,” he says.
A state issue Gardner’s more eager to talk about is the effort to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas, which has found its way onto 12 local ballot initiatives throughout Colorado. Gardner says the issue is splitting the state’s Democratic party, with wealthy congressman Jared Polis putting his own money into the antifracking movement while Governor John Hickenlooper remains passively for fracking. That puts Udall in a bind. The energy industry is booming in Colorado, and Gardner argues the ban could cost the state 100,000 jobs and $12 billion in economic activity—a ready-made campaign line if Udall supports a ban. On the other hand, opposing a ban would mean he’d have to forgo the help of Democratic mega-donor and antifracking billionaire Tom Steyer.
Gardner says by not taking a position on an issue that Coloradans will be voting on this November, his opponent ends up looking ineffective. “Mark Udall’s simply been along for the ride,” he says.
Maybe so, but even with his weak poll numbers, Udall still has a downhill ride to reelection. Democrats in Colorado have built a coalition of young people, single women, Hispanics, environmentalists, suburban moms, and college-educated liberals that’s flipped the once reliably red state blue. Barack Obama won Colorado twice, and since 2007, the state’s had a Democratic governor. Republicans have been cursed with poor candidates and splits among conservatives in nearly every statewide election for a decade. Even last year’s successful recall of two Democratic state senators who had supported strict gun control legislation was more a reaction to Democratic excess than any newfound love for the GOP.
Gardner says he hopes to harness voters’ desire for political balance. Doing so would give Republicans a much-needed win in Colorado, and he’s fairly clear-eyed about what his victory would mean for GOP control of the Senate. “We have to win Colorado to be number 51,” Gardner says.
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.