Vowing to reverse a decade-long slump in the Republican Party’s fortunes in swing state Colorado, Rep. Cory Gardner officially launched his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall on Saturday inside a Denver lumber warehouse.
“In 2008, Colorado led the nation for change,” said the two-term congressman, referencing a year Democrats — including President Barack Obama and Udall — carried the state. “And in 2014, we can change it again.”
Although a sudden blizzard slowed traffic outside and chilled the warehouse space where Gardner made his announcement, a throaty crowd of more than 100 supporters cheered as a pugnacious Gardner took the attack to the opposition.
Arguing that Colorado’s purple-hued voters have had enough of “liberal over-reach and indecisive leadership,” Gardner, widely touted as the GOP’s best hope in a Senate race that hadn’t been considered competitive until he joined it, said that last year’s defeats — three Democratic state senators lost their seats in recall efforts and a multi-billion dollar tax increase went down in flames on the statewide ballot — portend a rough year ahead for Democrats.
“Today, we join the nation and bring Colorado into focus as we push back against Harry Reid and President Obama,” Gardner said. “The United States that we know is fading. Amidst big government boondoggles and runaway bureaucracies, the people of this country find themselves working harder and harder each and every day while they see the promise of opportunity slip further and further away. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better.”
Democrats wasted no time blasting the Yuma Republican, who was joined on stage by Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and state Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, two Senate hopefuls who withdrew from the race after Gardner jumped in.
“We’ve swapped one reckless Tea Partier for another,” said Udall campaign manager Adam Dunstone in a statement issued as Gardner spoke. “But unlike Ken Buck, Congressman Gardner will be held to account for the out-of-touch votes he cast in Congress.”
Dunstone pointed to a national publication that last year ranked Gardner among the 10 most conservative House members and a voting record “well to the right of Colorado’s Tom Tancredo and the Tea Party’s most reckless members.”
Republicans at the Gardner rally weren’t buying it, though, as office-holders and party bigwigs grinned nearly ear-to-ear at the prospect of the fresh candidacy.
“This is the biggest day for the Colorado Republican Party in about a decade,” exulted former GOP state chairman Dick Wadhams. “Cory Gardner is the face of the future — he’s articulate, he’s smart, he will take this campaign right at Mark Udall. They know it. It’s going to be a great campaign, and it’s going to usher the Colorado Republican Party into a new generation.”
Wadhams, who had a hand in the campaigns of the only Republicans to win top-ticket races statewide since the 1970s, suggested that Gardner was the GOP candidate to recreate some of that magic.
“It takes a special kind of Republican to win governor and senator in this state, and Cory is exactly that kind of candidate,” Wadhams told The Colorado Statesman. “But he’s actually more. When I think of (former Sens.) Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown and Wayne Allard and (former Gov.) Bill Owens, they were wonderful people, but their time has passed. This is a new generation that we’re looking at with Cory, and he’s going to be able to propel this party into a place where it hasn’t been in a long time, and that’s being competitive and relevant.”
Former El Paso County clerk and recorder Wayne Williams, running for secretary of state this year, said he was thrilled to appear on the same ballot as Gardner.
“It raises the excitement level within the Republican Party,” Williams said. “Cory has a lot of support around the state, he brings some youthful exuberance to the race and provides a real clear contrast with Mark Udall. In any election, it’s important to have a strong ticket top-to-bottom, and Cory provides that possibility, along with a lot of other candidates. It’s going to be a great year.”
State Treasurer Walker Stapleton agreed.
“Cory’s going to be a formidable candidate for the Senate,” said Stapleton, who is seeking a second term in November. “He’s going to help bring a lot of much-needed resources into Colorado. He’s going to help the Republican Party. He’s going to run a good race. It’s very good news for the party, and I’m very excited about it.”
Buck lost a close race against Colorado’s other Democratic U.S. senator, Michael Bennet, in 2010 after Democrats pegged him as too extreme but was quick to wave off attempts to conflate his candidacy with Gardner’s.
“He’s in a different position than I was, he doesn’t have the kind of primary I had four years ago,” Buck said, referring to his Tea Party-fueled run against former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. “I think Cory will distinguish himself very quickly,” said Buck, who announced plans days earlier to run for the congressional seat vacated by Gardner after news of his candidacy broke. (It’s likely to be a crowded primary, as state Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, and Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said this week they would also be running, while several other potential candidates said they were weighing campaigns.)
“I was running because I felt this country needs to take a different direction, and I think Cory has the best chance of winning Colorado,” Buck added.
Stephens said she had dropped from the race when Gardner got in for similar reasons.
“You see people here, they’re united. That’s how you win, is you’re united, and you really are going down the highway together,” she said after Gardner spoke. Calling her move “a very tough decision,” she added, “Nothing good really comes easy, and I really felt this was for the good. I’m fully supporting Cory.”
State Sens. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, are still in the race for the GOP nomination, which will be decided by a June 24 primary. That ballot will be set by April 12, when candidates need to clear 30 percent support among state assembly delegates or, as Hill is attempting, have successfully petitioned onto the ballot by gathering 1,500 signatures per congressional district in a process that wraps up at the end of March.
While Democrats have poked at the Republican Senate field — labeling Udall’s opponents “a political ‘clown car’” a month ago — the specific attacks on Gardner rained down this week.
Gardner’s positions on immigration reform “align him with extreme anti-immigrant voices like Tom Tancredo,” said state Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, in a release issued by the Udall campaign. “Gardner said allowing the children of undocumented immigrants to stay in the only country they’ve ever known is ‘misguided’ and suggested it would ‘reward illegal behavior,’” Pabon said, pointing to the Republican’s record on the federal DREAM Act. “That’s just not right.”
State Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, previewed the kind of attacks Gardner can expect over his support for recent House Republican budgets.
“Congressman Cory Gardner voted to end Medicare as we know it today, forcing seniors to find their own care on the private market and raise their out-of-pocket costs by $6,400. He voted to gut Social Security and opposed an effort to protect it from privatization. Colorado seniors deserve retirement security, not an uncertain future where a bad day on Wall Street could wipe out their life savings,” Tochtrop said in a statement sent out by the Udall campaign.
Conservative writer George Will, who was in Colorado for a Republican leadership gathering the weekend before Gardner jumped in the Senate race, argued in a column this week that the Democrats faced their own uphill battle with voters over the widely unpopular Affordable Care Act.
“Sixty percent of Coloradans oppose Obamacare,” he wrote. “Gardner, who has a solid conservative voting record but does not have a serrated edge, is suited to purple Colorado.”
— See the March 7 print edition for full photo coverage.