Under normal circumstances, Sen. Cory Gardner would be a clear favorite for re-election.
Personable and politically astute, the Colorado Republican ran a terrific campaign in 2014 to oust Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. But President Donald Trump has energized partisan Democrats and alienated suburban swing voters nationally, and that has made Gardner the most vulnerable GOP senator up for re-election in 2020.
Still, it would be unwise for Democrats to count their Colorado chickens before they’ve hatched. Gardner has an uphill fight, but it’s not an impossible one.
Racking up wins
Gardner was just 30 years old when he was appointed to the Colorado state House in 2005. He won a full term the next year and was re-elected in 2008.
In 2010, he challenged and defeated Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey. After initially announcing in May 2013 that he wouldn’t run for the Senate, Gardner reversed himself the following year in late February.
National Republicans, who never stopped recruiting him for the Senate, were overjoyed, while Democrats realized that Udall had a serious fight on his hands.
Gardner opened his general election campaign with a renewable energy/pro-environment television ad that showed he would run from the center and woo suburban voters.
It was a savvy move and a smart strategy, given the likelihood that Democrats would portray him as a conservative ideologue.
The challenger was simply more likable than Udall, who didn’t help himself by obsessively focusing on reproductive rights at the same time that Gardner was stressing economic and energy themes.
Gardner won narrowly, 48 percent to 46 percent, a margin of just under 40,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast.
While he ran a strong race, Gardner definitely benefited by running during Barack Obama’s second midterm election. Without the dynamic that produced a nine-seat Republican Senate gain nationally, he may well have fallen short in his Senate bid.
The state of the state’s politics
Though Republican presidential nominees have carried Colorado in 10 of the last 15 elections, the state has been generally competitive for years. More recently, however, it has been sliding away from the GOP.
Last year, Democrats retained the state’s open governorship, took over the offices of attorney general, state treasurer and secretary of state, and gained a new congressional seat. The party also flipped the state Senate.
Democrats now control the state House with 41 seats to 24 seats for the GOP, and the Senate more narrowly, 19-16.
But state election results tell a slightly more complicated story.
Donald Trump received a smaller percentage of the vote in 2016 (43.3 percent) than Mitt Romney did in 2012 (46.1 percent) or John McCain in 2008 (44.7 percent), but Trump’s losing margin (4.9 points) was actually less than Romney’s (5.4 points) or McCain’s (9 points).
And while Democrats won an at-large University of Colorado regent seat last fall, Republicans held the other at-large regent seat in 2016 at the same time Trump was losing the state.
University board of regents or board of governors races often reflect a state’s partisan fundamentals, combined with the particular election cycle’s partisan dynamics.
Still, Democrats have won 10 of the last dozen gubernatorial elections, a remarkable feat that suggests something more than mere chance.
Interestingly, the state’s senior senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, has not exactly blown away his Republican opponents, both of whom were regarded as relatively weak.
Bennet, who was appointed to the seat in 2009, squeezed by Ken Buck 48.1 percent to 46.4 percent in 2010, which probably reflects the strong anti-Obama midterm message more than the two candidates’ quality or the state’s underlying partisanship.
Six years later, Bennet beat Republican Darryl Glenn, then an El Paso county commissioner, 50 percent to 44.3 percent.
Both parties seem to have relatively low ceilings and high floors in statewide races, which means a tight Senate race next year is very possible.
A couple of recognizable Democrats are already in the race. Andrew Romanoff is a former speaker of the Colorado House who lost a 2010 Senate primary to Bennet and a 2014 challenge to Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. (Coffman lost re-election by a surprisingly large margin last year in a suburban swing district.)
Mike Johnston is a former Colorado state senator who finished a credible third (with almost a quarter of the vote) in last year’s Democratic primary for governor.
Other prominent Democrats, including Rep. Ed Perlmutter, continue to be mentioned as possible candidates, though one of them, former Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, has decided to run for the House instead.
Democrats haven’t yet given up on their hope that former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who announced a presidential bid recently, will eventually forgo his White House ambitions and instead enter the Senate race.
Gardner is lucky his seat is up next year instead of 2018.
It’s generally easier for an incumbent to swim against the tide in a presidential year than during a midterm election, when voters use their House and Senate votes to make a statement about a president who is not on the ballot.
Next year, voters who dislike Trump but generally view Gardner favorably have separate votes to cast, giving the Republican senator a better opportunity to attract ticket-splitters.
Nevertheless, Trump will be a significant liability for Gardner, since a vote for the incumbent is one for continued GOP control of the Senate and inevitably a vote in support of the president.
Gardner, after all, chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee last cycle (making him a member of the party’s Senate leadership), and he generally has been a loyal soldier in Trump’s Senate army.
He will have to depend on his campaign skills and, possibly, some Democratic division to hold his seat next year. It will be a difficult challenge with Trump at the top of the ballot.
Of course, Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana squeaked out even more difficult victories last year, so Gardner at least has a roadmap to follow.
Note: An almost identical version of this column first appeared in Roll Call on March 5, 2019.