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The Consensus Candidate

Cory Gardner unifies Colorado Republicans.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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"I love to smoke,” says Colorado congressman Cory Gardner, his voice trailing off. His aide’s eyes widen. “Finish that thought!” she says.

Cory Gardner

Cory Gardner


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 Right to Life and the Eagle Forum, object to personhood 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.

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