Gardner high-roller junket makes national news, plays into Shaffer campaign message

CBS News aired undercover video Friday that captured Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner and other Tea Party freshman members of Congress hobnobbing with high-rolling donors at a Key Largo yacht club, downing cocktails at a $10,000-a-head happy hour and venturing to sea on a chartered fishing boat named the “Good Life.”

“This is just the latest example of what’s wrong with Washington and Congressman Cory Gardner,” state Senate President Brandon Shaffer, who is running to unseat Gardner this year, told the Colorado Independent. “Despite campaigning on a pledge to stand up to the Washington special interests, Congressman Gardner has sold out to the highest special interest bidders and lobbyists. [He] has been a reliable vote to put the special interests and the ultra wealthy first, while leaving the middle class and seniors last.”

Written up as an exposé, the CBS piece reveals nothing illegal, but it underlines the way established campaign-finance structures and career-reward systems are pressing members of the GOP freshman class like Gardner into conducting the Beltway “business as usual” they decried on campaign trails.

“In 2010, many freshmen Republicans were swept into Congress on the promise of doing things differently,” says reporter Sharyl Attkisson, “but fast-forward to 2012, and the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., an exclusive seaside resort and home to 54 holes of championship golf and a private marina full of luxury yachts.”

The piece features part of a Gardner ad in which he vowed to act on behalf of his Fourth-District constituents.

“I will always put Colorado families before the Washington special interests,” Gardner tells viewers.

Indeed, running against insider-Washington was a major theme of Gardner’s 2010 campaign. In a video made when he was selected for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program, Gardner said one of good government’s “first principles” was that representatives serve “Mainstreet” Americans not special-interest “fat cats.”

“We’ve got to get back to our first principles in this country… that when we send people to Washington DC, we’re sending them there to represent you and I, Mainstreet Colorado, Mainstreet United States, not the bureaucrats and fat cats, but to get things done for us.”

Messages left with Gardner campaign staff seeking comment on the story went unreturned. Gardner’s Twitter feed was idle Friday, save for a single message promoting a high-school art contest in his district.

In the past, Shaffer has called Gardner the “special interests’ favorite incumbent.” In a recent release, he questioned the motivation driving Gardner’s pro-drilling energy positions.

“U.S. oil production is at its highest level in eight years, but Congressman Gardner [has] called for more oil and gas drilling in the United States. It’s no secret why Cory Gardner is such a good friend to Big Oil. Since being elected in 2010, Gardner has received more money from oil and gas than any other industry. In the last year, Gardner has received $159,750 from the energy and natural resources sector, more than any other Colorado Congressman.”

Gardner is indisputably a juggernaut fundraiser and he does lean heavily on the oil and gas industry.

Last year, oil and gas interests gave Gardner $177,000. That’s more than Marilyn Musgrave, his Republican CD4 predecessor, raised from the sector for all three of her congressional races. Democrat Betsy Markey, who defeated Musgrave in 2008, got a negligible amount from oil and gas, and Republican Bob Schaffer, who represented the district before Musgrave, pulled down only roughly $23,000 total from oil and gas for all three of his House campaigns.

For Americans who have watched campaign finance spin out of control over the last decade and who have grown increasingly cynical about elected leaders awash in cash and tied to pet industries, the CBS Key Largo story may seem more Onion-style satirical statement of the obvious than eye-opening exposé. Yet for Coloradans, the piece reinforces the image of Gardner as an industry man on the inside even as he has sold himself as a people-first citizen lawmaker of the Great Plains.

In May 2010, for example, then-candidate Gardner made headlines for attending a fundraiser hosted by British Petroleum lobbyists. The event came just weeks after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and as millions of gallons of oil gushed unabated into the Gulf of Mexico. The $1,000-a-plate luncheon at the boutique Hotel George off the National Mall hosted other energy lobbyists and industry players, including representatives from Koch Industries.

[ Front-page image: Cory Gardner, NRCC screen grab ]