The Magazine

The Consensus Candidate

Cory Gardner unifies Colorado Republicans.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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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.

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