Democrats draft playbook for defeating Gardner, their top Senate target in 2020

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner celebrates the election of Donald Trump on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 as his wife, Jaime, looks on. (Photo by Evan Semón)
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner celebrates the election of Donald Trump on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 as his wife, Jaime, looks on. (Photo by Evan Semón)

WASHINGTON — A recent vote by Sen. Cory Gardner helped the U.S. Senate confirm Chad Readler for a lifetime appointment as a judge on one of the most powerful courts in the country.

Gardner’s critics think that vote will help them to oust the GOP lawmaker in 2020.

The Colorado senator — like every other Republican in the chamber except Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — voted to confirm Readler for the seat on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Readler was approved by a vote of 52-47, with no Democratic support.

Democrats had decried the nomination, pointing to Readler’s role in challenging the Affordable Care Act when he was a top attorney at the Justice Department. He filed a legal brief urging the court to strike down the law, including its protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

Liberal groups are already using the vote against Gardner, and they say it’s only one of many areas where the Colorado Republican is vulnerable in his 2020 re-election bid. Democratic groups in Colorado and in Washington, D.C., are making Gardner a main target in this campaign cycle, and they like their chances of flipping his seat from red to blue.

“He’s an extreme member of the Republican Party running in a state that’s increasingly blue,” said Amelia Penniman, a spokeswoman for American Bridge. The Democratic research group has made unseating Gardner one of its top priorities this cycle.

The importance of Gardner’s seat to the Democrats can’t be understated. Senate “Democrats cannot win a majority without Colorado,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the nonpartisan newsletter, “Cook Political Report.”

Efforts to defeat Gardner in November 2020 are already under way.

Following Gardner’s vote for Readler, American Bridge issued a statement saying, “The Republican Senators who voted to confirm Chad Readler have not only cemented their legacies of opposing protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, they’ve also made a colossal political mistake that will dog them for the next eighteen months.”

Another liberal group ran ads targeting Gardner ahead of the judicial vote. In ads that ran on Facebook in the days leading up to the confirmation, the group Demand Justice warned that Readler “will help to turn our courts into a rubber stamp for [President Donald] Trump’s extreme agenda.”

Hammering Gardner on his votes to confirm Trump appointees is just one piece of the left’s 2020 playbook for claiming his seat. They’re also planning to pan his record on the environment and health care while portraying him as a die-hard supporter of Trump’s policies, despite his efforts to frame himself as a moderate.

“We’re just going to tell the people of Colorado what Cory Gardner has been doing in Washington all these years,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado.

Gardner “went to Washington, D.C., promising to be a different kind of Republican,” Silverii added, but instead spent his time “doing the bidding” of Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Penniman of American Bridge said, “It’s instance after instance of him saying things when it’s politically convenient for him but then not taking the right votes.”

Gardner has voted with Trump 90.1 percent of the time since 2017, according to the website FiveThirtyEight. According to that analysis, Gardner voted with Trump 91.7 percent of the time in the 115th Congress (2017-2018), but only 71.4 percent of the time in the current Congress that began in January.

Notably, Gardner voted with Democrats in late January to endorse a bill that would have ended the government shutdown without allocating the funding Trump was seeking for a border wall. Gardner also voted for a Republican proposal that would have reopened the government and funded the wall. Both measures failed.

It’s unclear where Gardner will land in an upcoming Senate vote on whether to end Trump’s emergency declaration, which attempts to secure border wall funding by circumventing Congress. A Gardner spokesperson told KUSA-Channel 9 News in late February that the senator still hadn’t decided how he would vote.

Gardner’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The Colorado Republican won narrowly in 2014, unseating Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. But Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the state by 5 points in 2016, and Colorado Democrats enjoyed a banner year in 2018.

Silverii of ProgressNow Colorado called 2018 “a warm-up lap.” “Colorado is definitely on its way to becoming a blue state if it isn’t already,” he added. In 2020, “we’re really going to hit our stride here.”

“As a Republican in a Democratic state in a presidential year with an unpopular incumbent running, yeah he has reasons to worry,” Duffy of Cook Political Report said of Gardner.

But she doesn’t see it as a given that Gardner will lose his job.

He’s “a really tough guy to demonize. He always has a smile. He comes across as very easygoing, very affable. It’s hard to turn him into the devil,” Duffy said.

And “he does watch out for the state. … He pays a lot of attention to rural issues, which can’t hurt him.”

Duffy said the liberal strategy to target Gardner’s record “will be effective to a degree,” but the criticisms won’t serve as “knock-out punches.”

It’s still unclear who Gardner’s opponents will be. He could face a Republican primary fight  and there isn’t a clear front-runner to win the Democratic nomination.

Gardner endorsed Trump for re-election in January, which came as a surprise to some political observers, given his opposition to Trump during the 2016 GOP primary.

Duffy suspects Gardner’s move was an attempt “to take care of the far right who demand 100 percent loyalty or they primary them, and the Republican primary electorate in Colorado is really conservative.”

Among the Democrats who have already announced their candidacies are former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, and two political newcomers: scientist Trish Zornio and nonprofit executive Lorena Garcia.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told reporters in Iowa last month that he’d been approached by Senate Democratic leaders about challenging Gardner, but he wasn’t interested.

“I’m not cut out to be a senator,” Hickenlooper said. Instead, the former governor announced a presidential bid this week.

It’s unlikely that he’ll jump back into a Senate race against Gardner if the presidential campaign goes bust, Duffy said. If he did, he could expect his quote that he’s “not cut out to be a senator” to be used in every ad against him.

Colorado is one of five states that have never had a woman governor or senator, and there’s pressure to put a Democratic woman on the ticket to challenge Gardner. 

Former Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, long seen as a favorite to challenge Gardner in 2020, announced in February that she would instead challenge Diana DeGette in the Democratic primary for Colorado’s 1st District. The two announced women candidates, Zornio and Garcia, both millenials, argue their outsider status will be a plus in this election.

Silverii said candidates “matter quite a bit,” but he’s “agnostic” on the primary for now. The leading Democrats in the running “are great candidates,” he said, who would offer a stark contrast to Gardner.


  1. I think Gardner’s handlers have a tough job ahead of them.

    They’ll have to figure out how to hide from the press while complaining about unfair coverage with a straight face.

    Meanwhile, the WH is holding it’s first press conference in nearly a month and a half. They seem to be struggling with the same feat.

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