Gardner’s switch changes the game

The Colorado Statesman

In a stunning development that instantly reconfigured Colorado’s electoral landscape, news broke Wednesday afternoon that U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican, plans to drop his bid for reelection and instead challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall for a seat that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

Hours after The Denver Post first reported Gardner’s impending switch, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck — by most measures, the front-runner to take on Udall — announced he was dropping out of the Senate race and instead plans to run for Gardner’s seat. Later that night, state Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, confirmed that she was withdrawing from a crowded Senate field and would throw her support to Gardner.

Amid the hoopla and attention the reshuffling brought to a contest suddenly deemed competitive by national analysts, however, state Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, vowed to stay in the race for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and blasted Gardner’s late entry as the kind of “back-room deal” that costs Republicans elections.

It was a family affair last August when U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, with his wife Jaime and their son Thatcher (22 months) and 9 year-old daughter Alyson, attended the summer campaign barbecue of U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in CD 6. Gardner announced this week that he will abandon his congressional reelection campaign and instead run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Mark Udall.

Democrats acknowledged that Gardner was a more formidable candidate — he’s often described as the state GOP’s most prominent rising star and had passed on the U.S. Senate race last year despite heavy recruiting from national Republicans — but pointed out that Gardner shares many positions with Buck, making him potentially as hard a sell to the state’s purple electorate.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, pictured in a February 2012 photo from the Colorado Democrats JJ Dinner, now faces an altered reelection challenge with U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner entering the race.

The news came just days before Colorado’s precinct caucuses, where Republicans will begin sorting through more than a dozen candidates hoping to run against Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper. Both Democrats are unopposed for the nomination seeking second terms.

Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, flanked by state Sens. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, and Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, spoke at a forum for U.S. Senate candidates on Feb. 8. On Feb. 26, Buck withdrew from the Senate race and became a candidate in CD 4. Hill refused to drop out of the Senate race and chided fellow Republicans for “backroom politics.”

Recent polling shows Udall could be vulnerable, with Buck and Stephens nearly neck-and-neck with the Democrat and Hill just a few points behind. A year ago, Udall was running 10 points ahead in a hypothetical match-up with Gardner, though the troubled roll-out of the Obama Administration’s signature health care program since then has sent Democratic approval ratings tumbling in the state.

State Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, participated in a forum for GOP Senate candidates on Feb. 8. Less than three weeks later, she dropped out of the race when U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner said he will become a candidate against Mark Udall.

While there was still no official word from Gardner at press time, campaign and GOP officials confirmed that the 39-year-old planned to unveil his Senate run over the weekend.

“We need to replace Mark Udall in the Senate, and I believe Congressman Cory Gardner is in the strongest position to make that happen,” Buck said in a statement that also announced he would switch to a run in the 4th Congressional District seat Gardner is vacating.

“The Senate race has never been about me but about helping change the direction of the country,” said Buck, who lost the closest Senate race in the nation four years ago to Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

“I hope to have the opportunity to lead the fight for limited government and fiscal responsibility as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives,” he added.

But the switcheroo didn’t sit well with Hill, a 31-year-old who had been positioning himself as a new generation’s alternative to Buck and other party stalwarts.

Gardner approached him about dropping out a couple of weeks ago, Hill told The Colorado Statesman, but he refused. At the time, Hill said, his reaction was, “This isn’t right, people should have their own choice deciding who the party’s nominee is going to be,” warning that conservative voters will recoil if they “feel like it’s a coronation instead of an election.”

“These back-room deals continue to cause us to lose and undermine people’s faith in our party,” Hill said, calling Gardner’s assumption that he could clear the field “a smack in the face to people who’ve gone through the caucus process.”

Hill is gathering petitions to get onto the ballot — they’re due at the end of March, about two weeks before the April 12 state assembly, where candidates with at least 30 percent of delegate votes secure a slot on the June 14 primary ballot — but he’s also planning to go through the caucus and assembly process. (Candidates who opt for both methods need to clear just 10 percent of delegates at the state assembly.)

“I’m more convinced than ever,” Hill said, contending that he wasn’t going to let the “insider party establishment” push him out of the running. “We’re going to put all our energy behind a real grassroots movement representing the people in our party rather than party insiders.”

State Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, is also seeking the nomination, along with Mark Aspiri, Tom Janich and Floyd Trujillo.

A national Tea Party group — despite having elicited howls of protest from local Tea Party and Liberty groups when it first endorsed Hill last month — doubled down on its candidate the morning after Gardner’s news broke.

“After yesterday’s dramatic shake-up in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, conservative voters are left with a clear choice: State Sen. Owen Hill,” said Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer, adding, “With a head-to-head matchup between the establishment’s anointed candidate, Cory Gardner, and Owen Hill, the choice is clear for Tea Partiers around Colorado and across the nation.”

As far as Democrats are concerned, Gardner is sufficiently conservative to satisfy Tea Partiers, or at least to turn off Colorado voters, according to top party officials.

“Given Republicans’ back room wheeling and dealing, Coloradans will see that Cory Gardner is simply a Ken Buck-radical who is neck deep in Washington sleaze,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio in a statement.

He termed Gardner as “just another reckless House Republican” and blasted his positions on “dismantling Social Security and Medicare, banning abortion and many types of birth control, and irresponsibly putting our economy at risk to advance his political agenda.”

“I think Cory Gardner getting into the race shows that the GOP realized how weak their bench was,” said Jennifer Koch, executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party. “However, Gardner being in this race doesn’t give a new option for voters in November because he has the same backwards policies as Ken Buck and the other GOP US Senate contenders.”

Udall campaign manager Adam Dunstone took a similar approach, terming Gardner and Buck “ideological twins” in an email to supporters on Wednesday morning. He listed as proof Gardner’s positions supporting the failed Personhood ballot initiative, votes for a House Republican budget “which would privatize Medicare, slash education funding, and give millionaires a $125,000 tax cut,” and his opposition to repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on gays in the military, which Udall spearheaded.

“This race was always going to be difficult for Sen. Udall,” said Owen Loftus, communications director for the Colorado Republican Party. “The radical liberal has proven that he cares more about Washington special interests, than the working families, small business owners and senior citizens he was elected to represent.”

Noting that the state party will remain neutral in any primary, he added, “Today’s announcement is further evidence Mark Udall’s days in the Senate are numbered. We welcome Rep. Gardner to the race; look forward to a spirited primary, and uniting behind our Party’s nominee in the General Election, whoever that may be.”

Gardner, who had been facing an easy campaign for reelection to a third term representing the sprawling 4th CD, reported $876,000 cash on hand at the end of 2012, more than all the other U.S. Senate candidates combined. He’ll be able to transfer that sum to the other federal race, as can Buck with the $262,000 he reported on hand at the end of the year. Stephens had $48,000 in the bank, along with debts totaling $59,000. Hill, who had nearly kept pace with Buck in fundraising through last year, had $206,000 on hand. The Republican totals, however, are dwarfed by the $4.7 million Udall had in the bank at the end of the year, though analysts predicted that Gardner would be able to make up ground quickly.

Gardner, who had been serving in the Colorado House, unseated U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey, a first-term Democrat, during the Republican wave election in 2010. He easily won a second term after the 4th CD was redrawn more heavily Republican, losing Larimer County and adding most of Douglas County to the eastern Colorado and northern Front Range seat.

Despite any agreement to swap races, it is unlikely Buck will have a clear shot at the 4th CD. By Thursday morning, state Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, state Rep. Tim Dore, R-Parker, and Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway were among those who had already started floating their names for the seat.

This week’s developments recalled similar seismic upheavals in state politics, including Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter’s surprise 2010 announcement that he wouldn’t seek a second term — setting off a scramble that led to Hickenlooper’s candidacy — and Democrat-turned-Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s late decision to step down a decade ago, a twist that threw nearly every top politician in the state into a frenzy. On a smaller scale, former Republican Lt. Gov. Jane Norton’s entry into the 2010 U.S. Senate race occasioned briefer turmoil among state Republicans, when Buck first withdrew and then recommitted to the primary he eventually won.