All was peace and quiet in a news truck north of Denver, where an unsuspecting reporter was eating his lunch until he caught the eye of a mischievous state representative.
“There just comes this pounding on the window, and [the reporter] said he practically jumped out of his skin, and he looked and it was Cory Gardner, and Cory was just laughing that he had gotten him,” the Denver Post’s Lynn Bartels, recounting a years-old story about Gardner’s prank on another reporter, tells National Review Online. “That’s just how people view Cory, in the media or elsewhere. He’s just a great guy.”
“He’s not afraid to push the conservative agenda but does it with a pleasant message, a smile on his face,” added state senator Ted Harvey, who worked with Gardner in the Colorado legislature.
Under different circumstances, Gardner’s grin might not warrant much attention. This year, though, political observers on both sides of the aisle can’t stop talking about that likability, as Gardner’s disciplined, jovial campaign has brought the Republican to the cusp of victory in a state where President Obama and Senate Democrats earned victories in 2008, 2010, and 2012.
“Even Kansas and South Dakota look more competitive,” Democratic political consultant Steve Welchert, referring to red-state Senate races that Republicans are favored to win, tells NRO.
He has a point. The last six public polls have shown Gardner with a lead over Democratic senator Mark Udall, one by as much as seven points, despite months of Democratic attacks.
Gardner’s strength comes as no surprise to Coloradans who worked with him in the state capitol.
“Good candidates are hard to find,” state-house majority leader Amy Stephens, who decided not to run for the Senate after Gardner told her he might get into the race, tells NRO. “It’s rare to find someone who is smart, gets policy, can raise money, and is likable.”
By the time he ended his career in the state legislature, Gardner was a political talent respected on both sides of the aisle. When he won his U.S. House seat in 2010, Democrats “made his district more friendly” in redistricting, according to Eli Stokolos, a political reporter at Fox’s Denver affiliate. Rather than bother trying to defeat him, they tried to make other seats competitive by moving Republicans into Gardner’s district.
Gardner, who served in the state house from 2005 to 2010, earned a reputation as a hard-working, quick-witted politician with a bright future.
“He was as good a state legislator as I ever worked with,” former state representative Rob Witwer says.
Gardner pressed for an increase in the state’s rainy-day fund (a measure that would have benefited Colorado when the 2008 recession hit), and advocated extending the Castle Doctrine (a law that allows homeowners to use force against an invader) to businesses.
“Cory knew the rules like the back of his hand, so he could get a lot done,” said Amy Stephens, who sat next to Gardner in the House and ascended to the majority leader’s post when Colorado Republicans took control in 2010.
Witwer said that Gardner was especially good at working with the media to get Republican issues in the public eye, an especially important skill when Democrats controlled the legislature.
“I used to say, I wish I worked for people who had that news judgment,” the Denver Post’s Lynn Bartels says of Gardner.
Last year, Gardner wrote an op-ed for the Colorado Observer announcing that he had lost his private health-insurance plan because of Obamacare. That led to the paper’s reporting that plan-cancellation notices were going out, pursuant to Obamacare, weeks before the national press focused on the issue.
When he sensed Udall’s vulnerability, Gardner jumped into the race. In addition to Stephens, 2010 Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck — who made a series of costly gaffes en route to a narrow defeat at the hands of Senator Michael Bennet in 2010 — backed out of the primary, opting to run instead for the seat Gardner vacated.
Democrats, inspired by their recent victories, failed to adjust. “They had a strategy for beating Ken Buck and when Cory jumped in, they stuck with that strategy,” state-party spokesman Owen Loftus tells NRO.
State Democrats are so taken with their “war on women” strategy that they even deployed it on behalf of state legislators targeted in the 2013 recall elections, which came about in response to a bill curtailing Second Amendment rights.
“The playbook works, but it’s not going to be the same race every time,” Fox reporter Stokolos tells NRO.
Republicans won the recall elections, but Udall still went back to the well this year. Rather than use his first TV ad of the campaign to reintroduce him to voters, Udall’s campaign released an ad saying that Gardner wanted to ban abortion in cases of rape and incest and “championed an eight-year crusade to outlaw birth control.”
Gardner neutralized that attack by announcing his support for over-the-counter sales of birth control, but Udall has persisted. His campaign told Bartels that 50 percent of his ads have focused on women’s issues and Gardner’s co-sponsorship of federal personhood legislation. (Like Iowa GOP Senate nominee Joni Ernst, who has also supported a personhood initiative, Gardner describes the bill he backs as merely a statement that he supports life.)
Democratic consultant Steve Welchert, who worked for Udall on previous congressional campaigns, explains that Gardner’s “happy-warrior mentality” has made it harder for voters to believe Democratic attacks. That goes even for card-carrying members of the “so-called liberal media,” according to Bartels. “The press knows him,” she says. “When you hear Cory Gardner is this right-wing lunatic, you’re like, that’s not the Cory I know.”
Meanwhile, Udall’s focus on women’s issues has undermined his past strengths — his moderate personality and zest for retail politics. “His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince,” the Denver Post’s editors wrote while endorsing Gardner. Welchert says that the attack ads have saddled the embattled Democrat with “a little harsher” public image than he usually enjoys. Verbal flubs, such as his unaccountable difficulty naming books that have influenced him (Udall has a reputation as an avid reader), have made the contrast with smooth-talking Gardner even more pronounced.
Udall could still pull out a win, given the get-out-the-vote operation Democrats have built over the years, but Gardner has done just about everything he can to succeed.
“He’s arguably the best candidate with the best campaign team in the country,” says a Washington-based GOP strategist. “Should Democrats pull a rabbit out of a hat in Colorado, the [GOP] will have a lot of soul-searching to do in this state.”
As of now, though, it looks like the sunny Gardner will have more reason to be all smiles on election night.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.