In case you missed it, Cory Gardner was all over the Sunday news shows. At first glance, it seemed like vintage Cory, with Gardner — who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee — smilingly deflecting all tough midterm-election questions from Chuck Todd on Meet the Press and from Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union.
I mean, we’ve seen the act so many times before. Gardner puts his white teeth to work in distracting the viewer as he consistently ignores questions while pretending he is actually answering them.
It’s a gift, I guess. It certainly got him all the way to the U.S. Senate and into the bottom rungs of Republican leadership there.
But as I kept watching, I realized this wasn’t vintage Cory at all, despite the familiar act. This was barely-veiled, out-of-control Cory, who seemed to be gutting his own carefully constructed political career. Whatever my disagreements with Gardner politically — and they are many — I’ve always regarded him as a talented politician with a good read on the political zeitgeist.
This was definitely not that version of Cory Gardner. He was making two significant mistakes — and that’s not even counting his decision to go on the Sunday shows in the first place.
First, he not only aligned himself with Donald Trump, but with the worst of Donald Trump — the demagogic, Democrats-are-stealing-elections Trump, the game-is-rigged Trump, the other-guys-are-the-enemies Trump, the conspiracy-theorist Trump.
It may be difficult for your typical politician to defend Trump while smiling as if he had just won the lottery, but that’s precisely what Gardner was doing.
Secondly, Gardner, who, during the 2016 campaign, called Trump a buffoon and worse, was acting as if he had missed the Colorado results from last week’s midterms. In a clear rebuke of Trump, every statewide race on the ballot went to Democrats, which last happened in 1936. And Gardner, who is up for re-election in 2020, when he would be on the same ticket as Trump, has to know that Trump is likely to get clobbered in Colorado again.
Representing a state in which Democrats are currently dominating, Gardner is going on national TV defending the notion that Democrats in Florida and Arizona are crooks, without evidence, without foundation, without anything.
When Tapper asked Gardner whether he actually believed “unethical liberals” (as Gov. Rick Scott put it) in Florida were stealing the election, he, of course, didn’t answer. Instead, he said (repeatedly) that a judge had ruled that the clerk in Broward County had violated the state constitution, which is true. The judge ruled that Broward County had wrongfully delayed identifying the number of ballots left to be counted, which doesn’t sound like stealing an election exactly, but certainly Broward has had its share of election-day problems over the years.
But you might also note that the Republicans have the lead in both contests — Rick Scott over Bill Nelson for senator, Ron DeSantis over Andrew Gillum for governor — and the oddsmakers say both will likely survive the recounts. And yet, Republicans are acting like it’s 2000 all over again, except with the addition of Trumpian histrionics.
In Arizona, the NRSC put out a release saying Democrats had “cooked the books.” Gardner did not dispute the characterization even when Tapper noted that the Republican governor, the Republican secretary of state and the Republican senatorial candidate, Martha McSally, who has since conceded, said the election results were fair.
How bad is this for Gardner?
Judge for yourself. Here’s what Trump tweeted on Monday: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
This is based on, well, nothing. No evidence of wrongdoing. No claim anywhere, except from Trump, of forgeries. Note to Gardner: It’s simply Trump calling for an end to Florida’s constitutionally-mandated recounts.
Of Arizona, Trump had tweeted: “Just out — in Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption – Call for a new Election? We must protect our Democracy!”
Electoral corruption? From the guy who set up a commission — a failed commission, by the way — to “investigate” the mythical five million illegal votes from the 2016 election, an election that Trump actually won?
Delegitimizing fair elections is what, uh, authoritarians do. Cornell professor Tom Pepinsky, an expert in authoritarian politics, put it this way: “In a month of harrowing news, this development is still almost incalculably bad for American democracy. I now assume that a substantial minority of Americans believe that the results of the elections in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and California are democratically illegitimate unless the Republican candidate wins.”
Gardner is not an authoritarian, of course. He’s nothing like an authoritarian. So, what is he doing clearly enabling our authoritarian-leaning president? It’s worse than shaking hands with Rodrigo Duterte.
The strange thing is, Gardner had a very successful election season. His job was to save the Senate for Republicans, and it looks like they’ll pick up two seats in midterm elections that were otherwise a huge defeat for the GOP. Now, if he wants to save his own seat, he needs to figure out how to stay as far away from Trump as possible.
And yet, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote a column Tuesday, leading with Gardner’s willingness to join Trump’s conspiracy-nut crowd, with this headline: “How to lose in 2020 if you’re a Republican.”