Then Donald Trump was elected president. Now, given Trump’s extreme unpopularity in a state whose electorate is generally moving to the left, Colorado Democrats are confident that, come Election Day, they will pick up Gardner’s seat and fill it with the state’s popular former governor, John Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper landed the opportunity to challenge Gardner despite a lackluster 2020 presidential bid during which he said he didn’t want to be a senator and would be bad at it — before announcing his Senate candidacy in August last year. He floundered through the Democratic primary after he was found to have violated state ethics laws while governor; at one point, he was held in contempt for defying a subpoena from an independent commission investigating the matter.
Yet in every poll for a year, Gardner has consistently trailed Hickenlooper by a margin of five percentage points or more; the latest polling shows Gardner down by 10. It appears Republicans’ nightmares about the race are coming true: Despite running a solid campaign, Gardner could still be dragged down by Trump.
Back in 2016, Gardner announced that he wouldn’t vote for Trump, saying after the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that he “cannot and will not support someone who brags about degrading and assaulting women.”
But then Trump won — and Republican voters in Colorado who had gotten on the Trump train stayed on it, with polling consistently showing their unfaltering loyalty to the president. The message for Gardner was clear: Get on board or lose GOP votes, every one of which he knew he would need to retain his seat in November 2020.
Gardner stood by Trump during the impeachment process, endorsed his reelection bid and then proudly joined him at a rally in February in Colorado Springs, a conservative bastion. “This is a show of unity,” Kayleigh McEnany, then the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, said at the event.
But by linking himself closely to Trump, Gardner was risking his status with unaffiliated voters — who make up the state’s largest voting bloc, and who, according to polls, detest the president.
“This really was a situation where there’s no right play,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University. “I'm not sure what else he could have done.”
Gardner is forced to count on voters being willing to split their ballot and vote for Joe Biden for president and Gardner for Senate, ignoring the fact that Gardner and Trump are often in lockstep.
So far, it doesn’t appear the strategy is working. Gardner might have hoped for a boost in July from the passage of a bill he championed — the Great American Outdoors Act, which sent a massive influx of money to public lands. The legislation was a boon for Colorado, but it seemed to have had little effect on the race.
Apparently, all that Hickenlooper — known for his quirkiness and a chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease — has needed to do to fend off Gardner’s attacks is point to the president. “The bottom line is: He’s been with Donald Trump 100 percent of the time,” Hickenlooper said in the candidates’ first debate.
Making things worse for Gardner is the fact Trump trails Biden by an average of 13 percentage points in Colorado. "Jesus Christ himself couldn’t overperform Trump by double digits,” said Tyler Sandberg, a Republican operative.
Sandberg would know. In 2018, he ran the House reelection campaign of Mike Coffman, a Republican who secured five terms in Congress by pitching himself as independent of party politics. Coffman saw Trump as an albatross and decisively split from the president. But Democrats kept tying the two together, and Coffman lost by 11 percentage points.
And Coffman wasn’t the only Republican swept out of office two years ago in Colorado. Democrats gained more power in the state than they’d had since 1936. Even respected Republican sheriffs in Denver’s suburbs were cast out, which made the Colorado GOP especially nervous. Voters rebuked Trump by backing every Democrat they could.
This year, Trump’s reelection campaign hasn’t dedicated substantial resources to Colorado and Biden is mostly ignoring the state — a big, flashing neon sign indicating that for the first time in recent memory Colorado has lost its presidential “swing” status. It’s looking pretty blue.
So although Hickenlooper didn’t survive in the crowd of not-Trumps running for the presidency, that position could well be enough to put him into the Senate.
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