Littwin: The purple state and its would-be tea party senator
Whatever else you say about Cory Gardner, you have to admire his nerve.
We don’t yet know how he decided to get into the Senate race — whether he jumped or was pushed — and we won’t know for a while whether the decision will turn out to be wise or foolish, but we do know that it took guts.
All the talk is about how Gardner’s decision to take on Mark Udall changes everything — and it does. But it doesn’t simply change the dynamics of the race or improve Republicans’ chances to take over the Senate.
It also will likely change, forever, the course of Gardner’s political life.
To make this run, he’s giving up his House seat, a sure path to House leadership and, if he loses, the likelihood that someday he’d be perfectly positioned to run for governor, his dream job.
Instead, he’s risking it all to enter a race quite late, to start well behind in fundraising, to challenge an incumbent who has far greater name recognition and to have to learn how to run a statewide race on the fly.
As of now, Gardner seems to be in hiding. Apparently, the Lynn Bartels scoop caught him so off guard that he has had to reconstruct his announcement strategy.
But we can guess that he was talked into running by national Republicans desperate to replace Ken Buck with a stronger candidate. Obviously, Udall’s poll numbers are weak. And just as obviously the Political Action Committee money will start pouring in with TV ads blaming Udall as the “deciding” vote on Obamacare.
It’s clear, too, that Gardner rushed into the decision, which seems strange for someone as careful as Gardner, who had turned down the chance to run repeatedly. According to Buck, the discussions began about 10 days ago. According to Amy Stephens, Gardner told her Monday night. You only have to look at Gardner’s House voting record — in which he has consistently voted hard right — to see that he wasn’t planning a statewide run. You win in Colorado by appealing to the center. You win everywhere that way, but especially in Colorado.
There will be a lot of numbers that you’ll hear in this race, but maybe the most significant one is that the National Journal ranked Gardner as the 10th-most conservative member in what is the most conservative House in memory. (Udall was named the 34th-most liberal in the Senate.)
Can the 10th-most conservative House member — a number that most tea partiers would give up their Ted Cruz decoder ring to claim — really be elected in a Colorado that has been trending blue for a decade?
The quick answer is probably not. The more thoughtful answer is that this may be a wave election, that Obamacare is a killer issue, that Gardner talks a much more moderate game than his voting record would suggest, that Udall has never faced an opponent this tough and that, sure, he’s got a decent chance.
Gardner is the best Republican available. He’s smart. He’s likable. And it’s an off-year election. This is important. Democrats don’t get the same turnout in off-year elections.
As President Barack Obama said recently, Democrats don’t see these elections as sexy. If demographics suggest that Colorado is an increasingly blue state, this off-year, Democrats-reeling, Obama’s-sixth-year-blues election might be the best chance for Gardner to sneak in. The national handicappers have moved the race to “lean D,” meaning Udall is favored, but not by a lot.
And Gardner did sweep away most of a weak field of GOP rivals — except for young Sen. Owen Hill, the Ron Paul Republican who had a chance to blow this thing up. At the Denver Post debate the other night, Hill could have asked Buck why he was negotiating with Gardner to switch places — Buck running for the 4th District, Gardner running in the Senate. What could Buck have said? He’d have been dancing his high heels off trying to answer. Hill is now loudly complaining about so-called backroom deals — now that it’s too late.
Gardner has one issue, the big one, Obamacare. He can’t effectively go after Udall as a Washington insider. Gardner was a “rising star” in the House. You can’t be a rising star in Washington and not be a Washington insider.
But Udall is stuck with Obamacare and the so-called “lie” about keeping your mediocre policy if you want to. How long will that line last? That’s a central question as we head toward November. How many TV ads will it take before people start to tire of hearing Udall being blamed for a project for which he provided little more than his own vote? And if voters do tire of it, what else do they have on Udall? Strangely, at the debate the other night, they were attacking Udall for not being tough enough on the NSA, where Udall has been a leader in calling for more oversight.
And there is another big issue, but it works the other way: the government shutdown. Gardner not only voted for the shutdown — he also voted, just recently, against raising the debt ceiling, risking default. Then there are the rest of the issues. Gardner is on the wrong side of the poll numbers on immigration reform ( Michael Bennet beat Buck, 81-19, on the Latino vote), on “forcible rape” (remember this vote because it will become a major issue), on personhood, on abortion, on minimum wage, on cutting $40 billion in food stamps, on gay rights, on his vote for the Paul Ryan budget and its impact on Medicare.
Gardner is not Buck. He probably won’t make the Buck gaffes. But, unlike Buck, Gardner has cast hundreds of votes.
Gardner doesn’t have great name recognition, and he’s late to the race. He will have to introduce himself to most of Colorado even while he’s traveling everywhere else to do fundraisers. Meanwhile, the Democrats will spend months and millions of dollars using Gardner’s votes, one after the other, to frame him as captive to the tea party and backward on social issues.
The Gardner move is brave, it’s exciting, it has breathed life into a race Udall figured to win easily. But at this point, it doesn’t take much nerve to ask of Gardner: Is being gutsy enough?
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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