The world of politics in Colorado was rocked when Representative Cory Gardner, a favorite among Republicans, announced he was going to challenge Senator Mark Udall (D). Gardner had been aggressively recruited to run but decided against a bid last year. Perhaps polls showing Udall vulnerable against a weak GOP field changed his mind. In another boon for the GOP, Tea Party favorite and 2010 Senate nominee Ken Buck announced he is dropping out of the Senate race to run for Gardner’s heavily Republican house seat. Another GOP primary challenger may also drop out, state rep Amy Stephens, virtually clearing the field for Gardner. However, one Republican in the primary, state senator Owen Hill, has vowed to stay in.
Colorado has an interesting way of choosing party nominees. Party caucuses pick the candidates that appear on the primary ballot. However, one can also collect signatures from the state’s congressional districts by March 31st. Gardner’s entry into the race means many of the party faithful, likely more conservative than the Congressman, will still opt for a winner. Much as Virginia Republicans are learning at some point winning becomes more important than ideological purity. It does not hurt Gardner is pretty conservative however. Indeed, along with fellow Colorado Congressman Scott Tipton, Gardner is sponsoring a bill aimed at limiting welfare fraud by not allowing it to be used to buy marijuana.
Republicans are confident that Gardner can rebrand the GOP image in the state. While he represents a staunchly GOP district its vast size and multiple constituencies means he may be able to forge links with various voters in the state. More specifically, Gardner’s 4th Congressional district stretches across rural areas that border Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, and New Mexico. But the district also includes the wealthy swing suburbs of Araphoe, Douglas and Adams Counties. In 2010 Michael Bennett dominated these counties while in 2012 Barack Obama carried Adams and Araphoe counties.
Gardner also is unlikely to struggle to raise cash. Before his announcement he had $876,000 sitting in his House campaign account which he can transfer over to his Senate campaign. Unlike other Republicans Gardner has cozied up to leadership. This ensures he will not struggle to raise dough from big donors and that the party establishment may urge party committees and Third Party groups to spend on his behalf. If Buck had come back for round two it is questionable whether party leadership would have gone to bat for him.
Still, no polls have tested Gardner against Udall. Furthermore, Democrats are likely to recite several attacks against Gardner that have worked so well against prior Republican candidates for statewide office. These attacks are sure to focus on cutting Medicaid spending, helping shut down the government and continuing to wage a war on women. Likely another attack against Gardner will include immigration reform. Like many Republicans representing a district with a sizable bloc of Hispanics he has hedged on the issue; supporting securing the border and a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. Expect Udall to try and pin him to a position.
Unsurprisingly, Gardner’s announcement led to a silent groan in Democratic ranks. Even if Gardner does not win his challenge will be a headache for the party as it struggles to retain its Senate majority. Despite Udall’s massive cash advantage, $4.7 million, a number of factors are working in Gardner’s favor in addition to those mentioned above. First, Gardner can say he has voted to repeal and replace Obamacare multiple times while Udall has not done so. Second, Udall’s cash advantage can be misleading because GOP groups are sure to aid Gardner. Lastly, and more importantly, Udall is fairly well-defined in the eyes of Colorado voters. Despite his decent approval ratings the fact he was running almost even with a weak GOP pack is not good.
It remains unclear whether Gardner can really win this race. Udall is sure to focus on turning out Hispanics and single women in urban Denver and outlying Western counties. Also, while Gardner has in the past won swing Araphoe and Adams counties he has never had to do so for a Senate race against an incumbent. Udall’s name ID could very well be an advantage.
Regardless, Republicans netted a huge success with Gardner’s entry into the Senate race. As for Democrats it is just another headwind they face heading into November.