Gardner, chubby-cheeked and preternaturally upbeat in public, finds himself deadlocked with incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in the race for U.S. Senate here. It has been a nasty, contentious campaign that, in the waning days, has come down to rallying base voters to cast ballots. Gardner, 40, has brought in the biggest of Republican guns to do so in the past week, rallying with former Florida governor Jeb Bush in deeply red territory and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) in Colorado Springs.
“You make sure you’re thanking everybody and keeping them motivated and make sure that everything is on track,” Gardner said. That means going “all up and down the front range,” the north-south ribbon from Fort Collins to Pueblo, where most of the state’s population lives, “all up and down the places we know we have a lot of support.”
For a few hours Saturday night, Gardner, whose family owns a farm implement dealership in rural Yuma, Colo., was on the friendliest of turf, talking cows, water rights and family with constituents old and, he hopes, soon to be new.
“Aw, yeah, look at him!” Gardner said to Sascha Beaver, 27, who bounced her 9-month-old son Connor on her lap. “Did he get some ice cream?” Gardner asked. Just yogurt, Beaver answered. Gardner was interrupted by an older man who wanted to introduce him to another rancher.
A massive carrot cake stood covered on one of the long folding tables set up for the dinner, along with cans of Coors beer, scraps of uneaten steak and knives. Dozens of people – most of the men wearing massive hats and boots accustomed to dirt and pastures - stood in a line that snaked around the room and led to grills outside. Country music blared through the large, industrial building on the Elbert County fairgrounds.
“Nice to meet you, thanks for having me here tonight,” Gardner said. Someone asked him when the incessant political ads would stop. “Just a couple more days and your TV will be free and safe.”
And, Gardner hopes, his place in the Senate will be as well.
“I feel excited. You can see this momentum here, the energy and excitement here amongst the people,” Gardner said. He spent part of Saturday hanging out with tailgaters at the University of Colorado’s football game in the state’s most liberal enclave, Boulder. “People in Boulder were excited about the race,” Gardner said.
Gardner dug into his dinner at a table where his wife, who is pregnant, their two children and a few staffers sat. But Gardner couldn’t sit still. He would pop up occasionally and walk around the room where country music blasted from the rafters and the smell of steak wafted in from outside, shaking hands and slapping people on their backs.
“Cory, I want to shake your hand,” Lee Benjamin, 53, a rancher from Simla, Colo., said. ”The next senator from the state of Colorado.”
Benjamin likes that Gardner comes from a rural background and hopes he will fight for issues important to rural communities, such as protecting farmland and water.
“I think his core values align with many of the people who produce food,” Benjamin said of Gardner. “The core values of family, protecting the environment and encouraging energy development on our homeland, protecting our water rights, limited government that are important to me and those that I’m around on a daily basis.”
As for incumbent Mark Udall?
“He’s had his chance, and he hasn’t done anything for us,” Benjamin said.
Kiowa is the seat of a county that has just over 1,400 people. The town, with its ranching heritage, is about 50 miles southeast and a world away from Denver’s skyscrapers. But some here fear change in this county on the high prairie where the short, dense grass produces, in the eyes of the ranchers, some of America’s best meat. As Colorado gains population, the eastern part of the county is becoming an exurb, with rows of newly-constructed houses people return to after a day of work in the city and massive strip malls with faux-rock exteriors. Many hope Gardner will fight to preserve the ranching way of life here in a state with an increasingly urban-rural divide.
“The ranchers are losing their voice,” said Ron Hall, who attended the dinner from nearby Adams County. “Colorado is starting to be very, very much cities. It’s what they want. The rest of Colorado takes what’s left.”
Jim Beaver clutched a can of Coors. He has about 50 cows and breeds a cross of Angus bulls and black cows. He’d rather ranch full-time, but can’t afford to, so he has a day job with the city of Lone Tree, Colo.
“Cory is a rancher at heart,” he said of Gardner. “He was born and raised in Yuma. He’s got what we need.”
Gardner said that there should be “no forgotten Colorado,” be it Denver or Kiowa. But this was clearly his crowd. He walked from table to table, shaking hands and admiring the babies. “Is that your first?” he asked a man holding an infant. The man nodded yes. “Awesome!” Gardner responded.
He spotted a familiar last name on a name tag. “Are you related to the Funks in Horse Creek?” Gardner asked.
Gardner made his way around the table and shook hands with people on the other side. “Francis is a great guy,” he said to one.
Gardner finally returned to his table and his dinner. He said hello to a few more people, then slipped out with his family as the country music and kept playing and organizers urged people to get back in line for another round of steak.