In Senate run, Gardner may be hard-pressed to sell far-right record
News broke Wednesday that Colorado Congressman Cory Gardner will give up his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and run to replace Mark Udall in the U.S. Senate. The way the news came — in a series of frenetic bursts, with candidates dropping out and shuffling races — the decision seemed impulsive, an reputation Gardner has forged over the last three years in Washington.
Young and telegenic, career Colorado politico Gardner has been touted as the great hope for a state Republican Party that for years has lost races for top seats. The main, widely acknowledged reason for those defeats is that GOP candidates have been pulled to the right by a hard-core activist base while the broader state electorate has moved to the left.
But as top Republicans have struggled, Gardner has easily garnered votes. He won two elections to the Colorado legislature in a sparsely populated agricultural eastern plains district. In 2010, he was the only candidate in the Republican field with any experience as a lawmaker running in the state’s safely conservative high-plains Fourth Congressional District. He went from the Statehouse to the nation’s Capitol by espousing hardline Tea Party positions on social issues and energy policy.
Republicans here generally seem to be banking on Gardner as a political type that has been missing in the ranks as late. The hope is that he can sell a brand that has increasingly skewed old, hardcore, inflexible and threatening. That’s the image projected by statewide figures such as Ken Buck, Pete Coors, Bob Beauprez and Tom Tancredo. Insiders see Gardner as more in line with Republicans of the past who enjoyed more mainstream appeal, men like Wayne Allard, Bill Owens or Hank Brown, who all won top offices in the state.
The question now is whether Gardner, coming up as he has in the era of the Tea Party and embracing Tea Party positions for political advantage, has ruined his chance at convincing voters he is different than the Tea Party Republicans who can’t win a statewide race here. Gardner, after all, has a record he has to run on, established over years where the party swerved right and away from compromise. When Gardner takes aim at Udall over Obamacare, Udall can fire back that Gardner voted to shut down the government. In the moderate middle-class Denver suburbs where elections are decided in Colorado, the angry, pointless, expensive shutdown may be at least as toxic a topic as Obamacare.
Denver political consultant Eric Sondermann told the Denver Post that Gardner’s late-entry into the Senate race signals that “Republicans regard 2014 as their potential turnaround year… that this year is the year Republicans believe it’s their best shot at winning the Colorado [Senate race].”
But Gardner will be stuck trying to sell the Ken Buck platform in a state that is rapidly evolving. Even in his Fourth District, things have changed significantly since he was elected to Congress four years ago. Renewable power operations have grown exponentially in that area. A movement to slow drilling on the pockmarked northern Front Range has gained traction. All of Gardner’s adult constituents now may legally buy and smoke pot. His gay constituents can enter into civil unions. And thousands of Fourth District voters have signed up for Obamacare.
What’s more, the great blocs of voters — mainly women and Latinos — who decided Colorado’s last U.S. Senate race will find little affinity with Gardner’s positions. In the same 2010 Republican-wave election when Gardner won his seat, those voter blocs went in lopsided majorities for Democrat Michael Bennet over Republican Ken Buck. In all the ways that matter in Colorado politics, Gardner’s platform will be no different than was Buck’s.
Gardner supports the personhood movement, which aims to grant fertilized human eggs legal rights, outlawing abortion in every case and threatening fertility research and treatments. On the stump in 2010, he said he passed out personhood petitions at his church. It’s not a popular movement in the state. Personhood USA, through its local chapter, has placed initiatives on the ballot in Colorado that residents repeatedly have rejected by steep majorities. In 2012, the movement failed even to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Congressional votes specifically affecting women issues are no small campaign issue in Colorado as in the rest of the country. Republicans for the last three years have made news at a regular clip for casting ideological votes on laws tied to abortion, rape and contraception and for justifying those votes with non-scientific statements. Gardner has been on the conservative fringe on every one of those issues.
He voted in Congress to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides an enormous amount of non-abortion health care to tens of thousands of Coloradans.
He voted for the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which aimed to redefine rape to include only “forcible” instances of the crime. The bill he supported would have ruled out federal assistance for abortions in cases that include, for example, statutory rape, where a teenage girl is impregnated by an adult. In other words, just saying “no” wouldn’t be enough. Women would have to come away with bruised skin or broken bones if they expected to pay for an abortion with Medicaid or a tax-exempt health savings account.
Gardner also at every turn has opposed the Affordable Care Act, which does much for women. It puts an end to insurance-company discrimination that for years has set premiums for women that run much higher than those for men. The act guarantees fully covered access to preventive services — for contraception and mammograms, and for diabetes and sexually transmitted disease exams, for example. Those are the kind of services that women previously paid for out of their own pockets or went without altogether.
Gardner railed at Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at one of the Republican-controlled House hearings on Obamacare last year. He badgered and talked over her without posing a real question or expressing any interest in her answers. That incident will surely make rich campaign ad fodder.
Gardner has throughout his career as a lawmaker also consistently voted to oppose gay rights. With the country and Colorado speeding toward full legal acceptance of gay Americans, that record may now be a liability.
In Congress, the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign gave Gardner a zero grade for his votes on issues that would grant equal rights to gay Americans. Legislation he voted against included proposals to prevent workplace discrimination, provide health care benefits to partners, lift bans on gay marriage and extend immigrant citizenship to foreign partners of gay citizens.
On immigration reform, even though his district is home to a large percentage of undocumented rural workers and families, Gardner has adopted the Republican hard line approach. He emphasizes border security and supports Arizona’s controversial law-enforcement policies, which have drawn criticism around the country and the globe as unconstitutional racial profiling and as unAmerican in spirit. Colorado lawmakers last year passed a law making in-state tuition available for undocumented students raised in Colorado. In radio interviews, Gardner flatly said he opposed it.
His tone on immigration is indecipherable from the far-right members of his party. More law enforcement is the solution he proposes for the 20 million undocumented people living and working in the shadows.
“Our first line of defense against illegal immigration is the border,” is the first line on immigration at his website. “The solution to the problem isn’t for the Justice Department to file a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the Governor of Arizona for responding to a law enforcement crisis. It isn’t giving amnesty to the 12-20 million illegal immigrants in this country, or giving those people benefits that will only encourage more illegal immigration. The time has come to enforce the rule of law and end illegal immigration.”
Coloradans across the political spectrum are struggling with the issue of oil-and-gas development as it encroaches deeper into residential areas. Towns across the Front Range gas patch have voted to ban or temporarily halt drilling. A statewide ballot initiative was introduced last week by citizens to grant local governments control over drilling. On Tuesday, Republican and Democratic officials across the state, and many from Gardner’s district, wrote Governor John Hickenlooper and the legislature asking for clarity on local power to regulate the industry, arguing that it makes no sense that local officials they have power to regulate all variety of land use, except when it comes to drilling. Longmont, one of the largest towns in Gardner’s district, was the first city in the region to ban fracking and is now battling industry-backed lawsuits to lift the ban.
But Gardner, whose wife works as the head of a nonprofit that promotes the oil-and-gas industry, has taken an unabashed pro-industry stance. Last summer, he decried local regulation on drilling as government overreach. He acted as though he had never heard of local zoning laws.
“There’s ways to handle this,” he told Jon Caldara, head of the pro oil-and-gas free-market Independence Institute. “If you don’t want your neighbor to do something on their land, you can make a deal with them… It’ll probably cost you some money. But it’s a free society. It’s a free market. [Drilling] is a free use of your own private property.”
The righty fringe
Gardner also has been an outspoken supporter in Washington of the disastrous standoffs over the nation’s debt ceiling and budget, which have shut down the government, led to deep stock market plunges, cost vast sums of taxpayer money in investments and resulted in a historic national credit downgrade. Last August, Gardner backed the drive led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz to shut down the government in a deeply partisan failed effort to defund the Affordable Care Act.
“Well, I think if the government gets shut down, it’s going to be the President’s decision to do so,” he told talk radio host Mike Rosen. “I believe that we don’t need to shut down the government because we ought to just lift this health-care bill out of the way and let America work.”
In 2009, on the stump the year after Barack Obama was elected president, Gardner played on the edges of the so-called birther movement. At a town hall meeting in Fort Collins, he pandered to the Tea Party audience.
“Do you think the president is a natural-born citizen?” someone asked.
“The administration is trying to say he was born in this country,” Gardner said in response. His campaign spokesman later told the Fort Collins Coloradoan that Gardner “finds it very curious that this could all be ended if [Obama] just released the long-form birth certificate and put it to bed.”
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