Opinion writer
FILE - In this March 1, 2014 file photo, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., officially announces his candidacy for the U.S. Senate at Denver Lumber Company in Denver. Gardner will run against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. Rep. Gardner on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014 released the second of two ads touting his support for renewable energy and over-the-counter birth control pills, calling himself “a new kind of Republican” as he tries to unseat Democratic Sen. Udall in a state that has become increasingly reluctant to elect members of the GOP. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider, File) Sen. Cory Gardner. (Chris Schneider/Associated Press)

After an impressive win in 2014 in which he turned the “war on women” charge on its head by championing over-the-counter birth control, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has been a steady but quiet force in the Senate. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has been critical of President Obama’s Iran policy but was also supportive of the Every Student Succeeds Act (the bipartisan reauthorization of No Child Left Behind) and supported fast-track trade authority. He has taken tough votes to keep the government running while right-wingers grandstanded. He is a rarity — a responsible, middle-of-the-road Republican.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Gardner stepped away from Donald Trump during the election. After the emergence of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Gardner tweeted: “I am committed to defeating Hillary Clinton. The only way this is now possible is with a new nominee that reflects the values of our country and our party.” He continued: “I will not vote for Donald Trump. If Donald Trump wishes to defeat Hillary Clinton, he should do the only thing that will allow us to do so — step aside, and allow Mike Pence to be the Republican party’s nominee. If he fails to do so, I will not vote for Hillary Clinton but will instead write-in my vote for Mike Pence.”

Since the election, Gardner has avoided sycophantic praise of Trump. Rather than jump to support the president-elect’s pick for secretary of state, Gardner emphasized, “Congress has the constitutional responsibility of advice and consent and we will rigorously exercise it.”

Now the Russian hacking story has taken center stage, as has Trump’s irrational insistence that there is no evidence of Russian espionage. (One would think that rather than denying it, Trump would take the opportunity to distance himself from his feckless predecessor, who gave Vladimir Putin an ultimatum to stop interfering with our election — but apparently did not respond when the interference continued.) Gardner has refused to parrot Trump’s line and also stood up to party leaders who would rather bury the investigation in the House and Senate intelligence committees:

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told POLITICO he would introduce a bill that, if passed, would mandate a new select Senate committee on cybersecurity. The move could intensify pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who so far has resisted appointing a select committee on cybersecurity. He insists the chamber’s traditional committees, led by the intelligence panel, should handle the issue.

Gardner’s move came a day after GOP Sens. McCain (R-Ariz.) and Graham (R-S.C.), along with incoming Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), called for a special panel in a bipartisan letter to McConnell. It’s unclear, however, how extensive GOP support will be for a select committee, since any Republicans who get behind the proposal will be implicitly siding with the Democratic Senate leader instead of their own.

Put differently, Gardner is siding with the U.S. intelligence community against Putin and his U.S. enablers.

Contrast his independent stances with those of other conservative Trump cheerleaders in Gardner’s freshman class, including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who dutifully lined up behind Trump and have yet to object forcefully to his bromance with Putin. Gardner can, along with principled conservatives such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), hold the new administration’s feet to the fire, exercise proper oversight of the administration and reject patently unqualified nominees. Gardner could not have picked a better time to step into the limelight. In doing so, he may help save the GOP from itself — and elevate himself over less courageous Republican colleagues (which these days, frankly, shouldn’t be hard).

Gardner, along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has the opportunity to sway colleagues and, if need be, hold up or defeat Rex Tillerson’s nomination (and other State Department nominees) in committee. Gardner will make a name for himself and do the country a service if he can force an adequate, open investigation of Russian espionage. Let’s see whether he has the skill and nerve to pull it off.