First, the nominees (in alphabetical order by last name):
* Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia Senate)
* Joni Ernst (Iowa Senate)
* Al Franken (Minnesota Senate)
* Cory Gardner (Colorado Senate)
* Ed Gillespie (Virginia Senate)
* Mitch McConnell (Kentucky Senate)
* Michelle Nunn (Georgia Senate)
* Scott Walker (Wisconsin governor)
Looking at the list, it's immediately apparent that Senate Republicans did an outstanding job of recruiting this cycle. Capito ran one of the best campaigns in a non-competitive race in the country. McConnell was, as usual, outstanding. Gillespie came from nowhere to almost upset the single most popular politician in Virginia. And Ernst is a rising national star. But, when you look at the totality of the campaign, it's clear that Cory Gardner was the single best candidate of the 2014 election.
For Gardner, it's a race that almost didn't happen. In late May 2013, Gardner announced he wouldn't take on Sen. Mark Udall (D). "I've got work to do, I'm not in a hurry to run for another office," Gardner told the Denver Post at the time. "I think the most important thing for people is to know now. I needed to make a decision now, and I'm fully committed to make sure the GOP nominee will win in 2014."
Nine months later, Gardner reversed course.
Gardner's decision to take on Udall was about more than just a single Senate race in Colorado. As I wrote at the time:
With the addition of Colorado to the map, Republicans are now aggressively targeting eight other seats: Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia. While some of those seats are longer shots than others (Virginia, we are looking at you), all eight of them now feature serious GOP candidates who will raise real money and run real campaigns.If Republicans can win three of those eight seats -- and not lose their own in Georgia and Kentucky -- they win the majority in November. That's entirely doable -- and just became more so with Gardner's entrance into the Colorado race.
Gardner's decision was also symbolically important. It mattered that an ambitious rising star within the GOP suddenly saw opportunity where, he thought, none existed before; it was a lift for the entire GOP.
Then there was the campaign that Gardner ran. When he got into the race, Democrats quickly seized on the idea that he was simply "too extreme" for Colorado -- and, in particular, Colorado women -- by noting his support for a "personhood" amendment. (Such amendments, favored by social conservative, define life at the moment of conception.)
To his credit -- and not enough politicians do this -- Gardner realized the damage being done over personhood was far worse than the hit he would take for reversing course. So, he changed positions -- way back in March. "This was a bad idea driven by good intentions," he told The Denver Post at the time. "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."
Democrats, naturally, hammered Gardner as an election-year convert. But, then two things happened: 1) Democrats became convinced that it was a silver bullet issue and started talking only about reproductive rights and 2) Voters seemed to get over it and move on.
Democrats also underestimated Gardner as a candidate. He didn't come across as a fire-breathing social conservative who wanted to tell women what to do with their bodies. (He got some help from a series of newspaper headlines that suggested Udall had crossed a line in his focus on Gardner's record on reproductive rights.) Instead, he came across as a semi-dorky policy guy. Watch this ad featuring Gardner's grandmother and you'll get what I am talking about:
Not scary. Not even remotely.
To Gardner's credit, he understood all of these things very early on. He got personhood behind him quickly. He focused on energy, the economy and the idea of fresh-faced leadership who wouldn't be a supporter of most of President Obama's policies. Even when Democrats boasted that they had destroyed his candidacy in the summer with their attacks on his record on reproductive rights, he stayed totally focused on his own message and refused to bend to the whims of the political moment.
In the final week of the election, Democrats acknowledged that Gardner had outfoxed them. Some put the blame squarely on Udall who they said had been caught by surprise by Gardner's reversal and never really got up to speed in the race. Maybe. But had Gardner not been as good as he was, Udall likely would have won. (Gardner's final margin was 2.5 percentage points or about 50,000 votes out of nearly 2 million cast. And Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper won reelection.)
Gardner's victory is the first in quite some time for Republicans in a state they once dominated. Colorado Republicans lost a Senate race in 2004, a governor's race in 2006, a Senate seat and the presidential race in 2008, a Senate and governor's race in 2010 and the presidential race (again) in 2012. Gardner's win gives the party a beachhead in state politics and a blueprint for Republicans -- both in the state and nationally -- of how to win in the Mountain West. It also establishes him as a major force within a Republican party still looking to re-make itself for a national electorate heading into 2016.
Tomorrow: The worst candidate of 2014!