Congressman-elect Cory Gardner spoke to Battle ‘10 last week following a decisive 12-point, 30,000-vote victory over one-term incumbent Democrat Rep. Betsy Markey, 53 to 41. Gardner won every county except for a small portion of liberal Boulder county, including the battleground Larimer county, that had gone to Democrats from 2004 to 2008 and was seen as the only place where Markey could hold out any hope of keeping the race close.
Since his election, Gardner has been one of just a handful of freshman legislators tapped to join the GOP Majority transition team, a signal of potential future grooming, and a recognition of his hard-fought reacquisition of a seat that skews conservative on Colorado’s Eastern Plains and, with the exception of Markey, had been in Republican hands for decades.
“We always knew Larimer County would be one of our toughest areas,” said Gardner. “We actually felt very good about our results in Boulder County, just based on the number of Democrats to Republicans and unaffiliateds in that portion of the seat. So we always knew Larimer would be a very strong challenge and so we focused our efforts there, we located our headquarters there, and walked tens of thousands of houses in Larimer County. We made tens of thousands of phone calls. It was a very concentrated, grassroots effort to contact anybody and everybody we could in Larimer County personally.”
He believes he picked up crossover votes from Democrats as well. ”Last night, there was a woman who came up and told me that I am the first Republican she had ever voted for. There was another Democrat from Longmont that said she had voted for me. Now she did not say I was the first Republican she had ever voted for, but she did say she was a Demcorat and she voted for me. Both of them voted for Markey two years ago,” noted Gardner. “There were a number of Republicans we met throughout the campaign who voted for Markey in the previous year.”
Gardner continued, “Our message resonated with them, our message that Congress is not acting in the best interest of this country, particularly the best interest of the Fourth Congressional District.”
Congressman-elect Cory Gardner, CO-4
Gardner pointed to Markey’s voting record as the source for his base and crossover appeal. ”That was the key difference. Things like Cap and Trade, health care, the stimulus bill are out of step with the commonsense voters of the 4th,” said Gardner.
Voters turned against Markey, and Gardner noted the lesson to be learned by turning your back on your constituency. ”I think it showed what happens when you don’t listen to the voters that you represent,” said Gardner. “And we made it clear that we have the same background values and commonsense approach that the voters do. That is what brought us over the finish line.”
Unlike the unsuccessful Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Colorado, Ken Buck, Gardner never allowed himself to be distracted by social issues–raised by his Democratic opponent–in an attempt to sidetrack him from what he believed was the overriding concern of the election at every level: the economy and government spending.
“It was the same from day one,” argued Gardner. “I have told the story often about the Fourth of July parade in Brush, Colorado where somebody was shouting out from the side of the parade, ‘Stop the spending, cut the budget!’ It’s about the economy and that never changed. And it was the same in Fort Collins, the biggest city in the district, as it was in Eckley, Colorado.”
Riding a consistent message and a “wave” of enthusiasm, Gardner also pointed out Markey’s tone-deafness that he cited earlier in the interview lent itself to the perception that voters were being “betrayed.” Gardner concluded, ”There was tremendous enthusiasm amongst Republicans and unaffiliated voters. So it was not so much that ‘We’re going to be a part of a wave’ as it was, ‘Hey, other people agree with us, these guys are out of control!’ The one word that kept coming up wherever I was–Estes Park, Burlington–was the word betrayed. A lot of people felt betrayed by this Congress. It was a Congress that was elected . . . they were not going to raise taxes, they were going to reduce spending or not spend any more, and they did everything but that.”
Gardner spoke about the difficulties–the pressure applied to a candidate’s family–that burdens those that run for office. ”The first thing I’m going to do is reintroduce myself to my wife and daughter and make sure they remember who I am,” Gardner quipped.
Gardner quickly returned to his–and the GOP’s–top priorities. “But seriously, we’ve got to stop the taxes from being increased in January. We’ve got to put a concerted effort into the passage of a balanced budget plan. We’ve got to make sure we’re looking for spending cuts,” said Gardner.
Gardner admitted he was not afraid of tackling the big issues and defending his district’s interests, or making tough votes to accomplish that agenda. ”I’m not afraid to be the handful of ‘yes’ votes when it’s the right thing to do, or the handful of ‘no’ votes when it’s the right thing to do,” said Gardner. “I think that is what the voters in any district expect.” Gardner did point to the pressure that voters have placed on the new GOP majority, and that their priorities must align with what voters sent Congress to Washington, DC to accomplish. “If we get out there and fail to do what we said we’re going to do, then the same thing is going to happen in two years. And by that I mean, if we don’t address the deficit, and we don’t address the debt, then the same thing happens in two years,” said Gardner.
Gardner did not anticipate a change in his approach to being a legislator, or abandoning the voters who elected him in a way that many had felt Markey had by avoiding town hall meetings and ducking out of debates. ”My approach in the state legislature was to hold town meetings anywhere and everywhere. I’ve held town meetings in Eads, Kit Carson, Cheyenne Wells countless times. I’ve held town meetings in Cope, Colorado and I don’t think most people in Colorado know where that is,” joked Gardner. He continued, “That’s the same kind of approach I’ll bring to the Fourth Congressional District. It’s walking main streets, it’s visiting with business owners, it’s making sure that the voters of the district have the chance to see me, in person, that I can listen and learn about the matters that affect their lives.”
Just as messaging is important during an election, Gardner asserted messaging would be as important, if not more so, once the GOP majority takes the reins of power. ”We’ve got to work hard, and we’ve got to be able to say we’ve worked hard to do what we said we would do, show what we did, show what we tried to do, and communicate that clearly and effectively to the voters. The difference being this is actually something the voters want us to do,” said Gardner.
Gardner provided a general overview of what voters in his district could expect to characterize the new Representative’s agenda in coming months. In particular, Gardner pointed to a more open and transparent process in how Congress legislates. ”We’ve developed a 2010 plan, things we believed that if they were adopted in 2010, we’d have a better country. Everything from transparency and accountability, meaning the 72 hours of posting legislation and amendments so everyone has the chance to read it, to getting rid of czars throughout government,” said Gardner.
As for specifics, Gardner outlined measures that would have resonance in the district overall. “We’ve come up with a small business savings account idea which would allow people to save money to invest in businesses and hire new people and expand their businesses similar to a health savings account it it’s tax treatment.”
When asked about the metrics that defined the election and that would define any solutions used to address them, Gardner targeted unemployment and the effect that government regulation has on increasing uncertainty in the business community that, by extension, hurts the economy, driving up unemployment. ”If you look at a place like Greeley, Colorado it has been amongst the highest in cities around the country with unemployment. Weld county has fared a little bit better, Larimer county is a little bit better than the average in the nation, but it is still too high. We have to put policies in place that will help spur economic activity,” said Gardner. On the next point, Gardner was adamant. “That is a market-based approach, that’s not government saying ‘Alright, we’re here to do it for you.’ But it is also the uncertainty that we’ve talked about time and time again about cap and trade. Is it going to pass? Is it going through the regulatory process? Or the uncertainty of the health care bill and what it means to businesses. Those are the kinds of things we’ve got to make sure that businesses know they can invest and they’re not going to be penalized for it,” concluded Gardner.
Gardner believed that in addition to more “red” on the map symbolizing Republican takeovers in the 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts, the electoral success this cycle gives the GOP a lead in the Congressional delegation for the first time since 2007 and will boost Republican chances in the state in 2012. ”It really sets the tone for the next two years. The people of these districts rejected what Congress and this President have done over the past two years–that is was an agenda out of step with what we believed should be the direction of the country and over the next two years we’ll see the effects of that in the next election,” said Gardner.
The 2012 election will be Gardner’s first as an incumbent, but will also represent the first post-redistricting election challenge. He remained optimistic but sanguine about the political realities. ”We’ve taken control of the state house, so obviously we’ll be interested in what happens,” said Gardner. “A lot of high stakes involved.”
Battle ‘10 wrapped up the conversation by asking for the one thing that stood out to him as the most interesting takeaway from the entire process. ”It is amazing because we announced on May 7, 2009 and within two hours on November 2 it was decided whether people wanted to talk to me or not,” joked Gardner. And you bet they are already gabbing away.