Cory Gardner stunned Coloradans in February by announcing he would give up a safe seat in the House to challenge Democratic senator Mark Udall, a well-liked incumbent with no obvious weaknesses. It was a huge risk, despite a strong Republican tailwind. The energetic young congressman from the eastern plains was effectively betting his political career that he could do something no Coloradan had done since 1978: defeat an incumbent U.S. senator.
Colorado Republicans were over the moon. The winningest GOP campaign manager in Colorado history, Dick Wadhams, said what was on everyone’s mind: “If Cory can’t win this, nobody can.”
Those words were not just a rallying cry, but a warning. The euphoria that accompanied Gardner’s announcement soon dissolved into serious concerns that the Democratic machine would chew him up, as it had so many GOP candidates before.
By April, Democrats had committed half a million dollars to ads attacking Gardner on abortion. By June, Udall personally escalated the attack: “Because this really matters, it’s important you hear this directly from me,” Udall told the camera. “My opponent, Congressman Gardner, led a crusade that would make birth control illegal and sponsored a bill to make abortion a felony, even in cases of rape and incest.”
It marked the beginning of what would become the most relentlessly negative single-issue race (or as the Denver Post put it, “obnoxious one-issue campaign”) in recent memory—and a reminder of the formidable machinery Gardner faced.
The Democratic strategy is no secret, but it has successfully dispatched every major statewide Colorado GOP contender for the past decade. Here’s how it works. First, establish the narrative that the Republican candidate is extreme, narrow-minded, and obsessed with social issues. Second, wait for him to confirm that narrative, either through a gaffe or a loose remark. Third, having reduced the candidate to a caricature, use state-of-the-art data and voter mobilization to bring the election home.
As simple as this technique may seem, it requires the combined efforts of many different groups, which is
the essence of what has been called the Colorado Model: a coordinated network of large donors, organized labor, environmentalists, teachers’ unions, trial lawyers, and dozens of nonprofits specializing in various elements of political infrastructure.
This election, the Democrats took the Colorado Model across the country. In February, the New York Times reported that Udall’s colleague and friend Senator Michael Bennet, who himself narrowly defeated Colorado GOP challenger Ken Buck with a “war on women” strategy in 2010, would run the national effort to retain the Senate as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Everything about the DSCC’s plan had a Colorado connection. Executive director Guy Cecil, a former Bennet chief of staff, would employ the voter registration and get-out-the-vote methods pioneered in Bennet’s impressive victory. Even the name of this strategy to hold the Senate—the “Bannock Street Project”—was a nod to Bennet, referring to his 2010 Denver field office.
It all made sense: Colorado Democrats had run the table for a decade, and everyone was looking for a little sprinkle of that Colorado magic.
Given their track record, perhaps the architects of the Bannock Street Project could be forgiven for boasting to the Times about their “fundamentally different choice” of putting resources into turnout and field operations over television advertisements. They declared that targeted Senate races “would live and die by the strength of data available [in] the voter file.”
As Gardner campaign manager Chris Hansen read those words, he had another thought: What about the candidate?
Hansen’s first exposure to electoral politics was as a $500-a-month canvasser in a San Diego city council race in 2005, the year after Colorado Democrats began their amazing run. He still considers himself a “ground guy”—adept at the nitty-gritty work of going door to door for votes.
But when given one of the most important campaign jobs in the country this year, Hansen reduced his philosophy to a short sentence: “Believe in Cory.” In Hansen’s mind, the essence of a campaign is not spreadsheets, walk lists, or voter files, but ideas and issues—and, above all, the candidate who embodies them.