[dropcap]L[/dropcap]et’s try a little revisionist history — my favorite kind.
What if I were to tell you that John Hickenlooper had collected more votes in his governor’s race than Cory Gardner has in his Senate race and has a slightly bigger lead over Bob Beauprez than Gardner has over Mark Udall?
You’d be surprised, right? You’d be even more surprised to learn that it’s actually true.
By the time most people had gone to bed Tuesday night, Gardner was up 7 points and Hickenlooper was down a point, and even though Hickenlooper would pull out the victory, the narrative had been set. It wasn’t just a disaster for Democrats nationally (which it was). It was also a disaster for Democrats in Colorado (which it doesn’t seem to be, exactly; it’s more like just a really, really, really bad night).[pullquote]Gardner won by playing the moderate. What have Republicans learned from the race? Boehner is already promising to bring up yet another repeal-Obamacare vote, and Cruz is promising rebellion if McConnell shows any sign of compromise with Obama.[/pullquote]
Late Tuesday, both houses of the legislature appeared to have flipped from Democratic to Republican control, with the governor’s seat in danger. Now it looks as if Democrats will hang on to the House, probably lose the Senate and you know about Hick, meaning that the state government could look very similar to how it looked all the way back to when Hickenlooper won four years ago — Hick as governor with a split legislature.
The strangest thing is that Hickenlooper – who has spent so much time at the center of a gun-laws, sheriffs-pandering storm — is the Democrat who survives, and Udall, whose career has been basically storm-free, is the one who gets toppled.
It may not be that hard to explain, though. Udall had to run against Gardner, now the rising star of the Republican Party, whom Bloomberg writer Joshua Green calls a “purple superhero.” Meanwhile, Hickenlooper was fortunate enough to face Beauprez, who’s not a hero of any description.
If Beauprez really had a chance to beat Hickenlooper, in a race the pollsters had called a tossup at the end, he almost certainly lost it with his Blair Witch Project ad, suggesting that a Hickenlooper-led Colorado was a scary place in which to live. It didn’t pass the laugh test — and it reminded everyone that Beauprez had so little to add to the political conversation.
Gardner is now seen as a model — and rightfully so — for how a Republican can win in a purple-trending-blue state. As you no doubt heard, Gardner was once rated the 10th most conservative member of the crazy-conservative House. For context, you should know Michele Bachmann didn’t crack the top 25. So how could Gardner win with that record in Colorado against a mainstream Democrat like Udall?
Here’s my thesis: Even as Colorado has trended blue, it is still, if you look closely, an ever-so-slightly center-right state, and one in search of a Republican who fits that center-right model. They just couldn’t find one. For a decade, they couldn’t find one. We may have made fun of the constant Gardner smile — and certainly of George Will’s fawning “human sunbeam” description — but optimism and a happy-warrior style can work, especially in an off-year election, if you can just look moderate. It can even beat a Udall, whose “war on women” strategy is taking the blame. It can even win — apparently — when you duck and dodge every hard question about your record.
But this is a rare find. If you look at the other House Republicans on that top 10 list, it’s all red meat, faux-populism, anti-government, pro-impeachment talk. Gardner, meantime, is the conservative voter with the moderate rhetoric who frustrates oppo-research guys looking for any incendiary quote to pin on him. For Gardner, it has always been attitude over ideology, and when Obama is 14 points underwater in your state, and Republicans are winning across the country, that was enough for Gardner to break Colorado Republicans’ decade-long, top-of-the-ticket losing streak.
The question is whether Republicans can learn from this lesson. And let me jump in here to be among the first to guess that the answer is no. You don’t make models based on exceptionalism. How long have Republicans been waiting for the next Reagan? What conservative would get the winking approval of his base to run as a moderate (ask Romney or McCain)?
Beauprez is a different — the Republican who warns of a coming civil war, of creeping Sharia and of sheep-like voters who would line up for microchip implants (yes, microchip implants). I was there at the Pueblo debate to see Beauprez basically accuse Hickenlooper of responsibility for the murder of his friend Tom Clements. Beauprez was booed that night and still he came up with the Evan Ebel ad for his closing argument. The takeaway is that Beauprez couldn’t absorb the Gardner lesson while running in the same state at the same time.
And they don’t seem to have learned it in Washington, either. The word from Congress is that John Boehner has promised to bring up yet another repeal-Obamacare vote as soon as the session opens next year. And that Ted Cruz has warned Mitch McConnell that he’ll line up his Cruzites — you can expect newly elected Thom Tillis and Tom Cotton to join the team — if McConnell shows any sign of compromise with Obama.
We can agree this election was a huge defeat for Obama and a huge defeat for Democrats and a huge win for Gardner. But let’s agree, too, that it would portend something yet again if, two years from now, the unlikely purple superhero were named Cruz or Paul or Rubio or Bush or Perry or Walker or Jindal.