The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Cory Gardner loses in Colorado, he’ll have ‘personhood’ to thank

Rep. Cory Gardner, left, talks with constituents before giving a speech at Industry, a work space in Denver, on Aug. 6. (Sebastian Payne/The Washington Post)
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When Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) first ran for Congress in 2010, he supported a "personhood" ballot measure that voters roundly rejected that same year (even as they elected him to a conservative district). During his time in the House, he has supported or sponsored several other measures aimed at curtailing abortion rights, such as last year's "Life at Conception Act."

This year, Gardner is hoping to win a promotion to the Senate, but these positions are threatening to hurt his chances. Although most every conservative Republican opposes abortion rights, the personhood effort -- which attempts to define fetuses as people in order to curtail abortion rights -- has emerged as something of an albatross after high-profile losses on the ballot in Mississippi and Colorado, among other states.

Gardner doesn't support his former self on this issue, either. In March, he told the Denver Post that backing the ballot initiative "was a bad idea driven by good intentions. I was not right. I can't support personhood now. I can't support personhood going forward. To do it again would be a mistake."

In June, he tried to attach his change of heart to a policy idea. Not only did he think that restricting contraception access was a bad idea, he wrote in a Denver Post op-ed, he also thought that birth control should be available over-the-counter.

Senate candidate Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) contrasts himself with his opponent, incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D) on access to contraception. (Video: Cory Gardner for Senate via YouTube)

On Monday, Gardner released an ad that serves as 30-second Cliff Notes for his op-ed. He pretty clearly thinks that his past position on the personhood issue could hurt him in such a close and important race, and he's trying everything to convince Coloradans that he won't try and take away their birth control. Which is what Democrats and abortion-rights groups have landed on as an excellent attack.

Democrats were quick to pounce on personhood in this race. In late April, shortly after Gardner reversed course and announced a Senate bid, his opponent, incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D), ran an ad detailing Gardner's past support of personhood policies.

In June, Planned Parenthood launched a Web ad criticizing Gardner's new support for birth control access.

Then, in August, the nonprofit group sent out a press release titled, "One Thing Remains Clear: Cory Gardner Can't Be Trusted." Planned Parenthood's super PAC and 501(c)4 have together spent nearly $50,000 on the Senate race.

It's clear why both sides of the race are trying so hard to lobby women in the state to their side. In July, an NBC News/Marist College poll showed that 70 percent of Colorado residents would be less likely to support a candidate who supported restrictions on contraception, and 67 percent would be less likely to support a candidate who supported restrictions on abortion. Although other Republican Senate candidates supported personhood measures -- including Iowa's Joni Ernst and North Carolina's Thom Tillis -- Gardner is the only one who has seen this position become a focal point of his politics at this point in the election. Social issues seem to play different in the Mountain West.

In 2010, women supported Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) far more than his Republican opponent, Ken Buck. Bennet's campaign ran multiple ads about Buck's opposition to abortion rights -- even in cases of rape -- and his support of the personhood amendment. And Buck didn't help matters with his notorious "high heels" comment in the GOP primary.

On Tuesday, Udall's team was quick to rebut the new Gardner ad: “Congressman Gardner will do anything to hide his backwards agenda from Colorado women. The undeniable fact is Gardner continues to push radical, anti-woman measures that would ban common forms of birth control. One 30-second ad doesn’t make up for that.”

But it's still too early to tell what effect contraception and the months of attacks and ads will have on the race, and Gardner's strategy is nothing if not novel for a Republican. September marks the start of voters actually starting to pay attention to the upcoming elections. The last polls of the race -- which have Udall slightly ahead -- are from July.

And, there are still people who support Gardner's stance on reproductive issues. Women Speak Out PAC, which has spent about $30,000 on the Colorado Senate race, has a Web site with the URL, And a week after Gardner announced his new position on personhood, Planned Parenthood actually praised him for having supported the Violence Against Women Act.

Courting controversy on reproductive issues has doomed more than one candidate before Gardner (see Akin, Todd). It's clear from the last few months that Gardner recognizes his problem. The question is whether he can effectively neutralize the problem.