DENVER (CN) — The choice for Colorado voters between the incumbent Republican U.S. senator and his rival, a popular former governor of the Centennial State, may come down to the current occupant of the White House.
“While people are looking at Trump, I'm looking at Gardner,” said Katie Farnan, an organizer with the progressive Indivisible Front Range Resistance in Boulder, Colorado.
Republican Senator Cory Gardner is running against former Governor John Hickenlooper to represent Colorado in Washington. While supporters describe Gardner as an independent voice in the Senate, critics contend his record is but a shadow of President Donald Trump’s siege on the Affordable Care Act.
“I'm more angry at Gardner than Trump because Trump can only do what he does with people like Gardner behind him,” Farnan said. “Gardner has voted nine times to repeal the Affordable Care Act with no replacement, and that affects hundreds of thousands of Coloradoans’ health care.”
In the wake of Trump’s election, Farnan said she approached Gardner’s office numerous times to voice her concerns only to be dismissed so often she created a cardboard cutout of her senator and brought it to town halls.
“Someone came up to me and asked, ‘Who is that?’ and I said, ‘That’s your senator!” Farnan recalled. “I'm going to vote for Hickenlooper with fiery passion — I'm so excited to vote because Gardner has to go.”
A Democrat, two-term mayor of Denver and two-term governor of Colorado, Hickenlooper ended a run for the White House last year in time to pivot for a shot at Gardner’s Senate seat. With a background in geology, brewing and business, Hickenlooper was recruited to run for Senate last year by 314 Action, a pro-science political action committee based in Washington.
“We knew going into 2020 that health care was going to be the most important issue to Americans,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, 314 Action president. “Then a pandemic hit and a completely botched response by the Trump administration made a bad situation even worse.”
Naughton blasted Gardner’s unabashed support for the president and his policies.
“The support that Cory Gardner has provided to the Trump administration, the refusal to call them out on what are clearly irresponsible actions, is really quite shameful but not surprising,” Naughton added.
Recent polling by Morning Consult gives Hickenlooper a 7% edge on Gardner. Supporters also point to issue-based surveys identifying climate change and health care as top concerns among Colorado’s Democratic and independent voters, issues the Democratic Party argues it tackles better than Republicans.
“Democrats nominated both Hickenlooper and [Joe] Biden on electability concerns, they’re both relatively moderate choices given where Democrats are right now,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver and author of “Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.”
Just as Biden beat Democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the presidential primary, Hickenlooper handily beat progressive Senate option Andrew Romanoff.
Still, Gardner and Hickenlooper are not simple proxies for Trump and Biden.
“I think Cory Gardner is a very different sort of politician than Donald Trump. He's a much more skilled campaigner, a very polished public speaker and a good debater, but a tough year for him,” Masket said. “National politics speak so loudly right now, it's hard to distract people from the pandemic and from the economy and from President Trump who has a way of really eating media attention.”
He added, “As long as Colorado voters are thinking about national politics, that makes it harder for Gardner.”
But in a state that saw snow fall in August just 48 hours after a sweltering 90-degree weekend, anything can happen between now and November.
“I think Gardner's doing as well as he could possibly do,” said Mike Coffman, mayor of Aurora, Colorado. Voters unseated Coffman from the House of Representatives in the 2018 Blue Wave under similar critiques that he failed to oppose Trump often enough.
“I think the reason why I won more handily in 2016 is because people really thought Trump was going to lose and people really thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president, so right before the election, the generic congressional ballot really ticked up in favor of Republicans,” Coffman reflected — seeing signs that favor Gardner’s reelection.
While Colorado is home to slightly more Democrats than Republicans, unaffiliated and independents make up the majority by about 400,000 voters.
“Colorado voters tend to be very independent minded when they look at their ballots. They don't always vote straight ticket for one party or the other,” said Kristi Burton Brown, vice chair of the Colorado Republican Party.
“Gardner was elected before President Trump got into office, he was elected when other Democrats on the ticket were elected, because Senator Gardner himself is very effective for Colorado, no matter who's in the White House,” she added.
Besides having purple mountains of lyrical lore, Colorado has a history of sending bipartisan representation to the Senate, a tradition some see as a strength.
“Sometimes things get done more effectively if there is bipartisan representation, one Democrat and one Republican, because this is still a state that's fairly purple,” said Ken Bickers, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Cory Gardner and [Sen.] Michael Bennet have done a whole lot through the years together.”
Whoever wins, Bickers said he is most concerned about the toxic tone between parties, “where people are seeing the other side as not really American. I'm worried about the divides in the country and how deep they’ve become. I don't see either side working very hard to fix that.”
While independent voters can collectively decide the race in Colorado, data from recent elections suggests they tend to lean left.
“I’m more anti-Gardner than pro-Hickenlooper,” said Adam Smith, a registered independent born in England who became a U.S. citizen in 2015. On the issues, Smith said he is most concerned about climate change and Medicare for All.
“I’m not a big fan of fracking and what Hickenlooper’s done with that,” Smith said. “But I’m going to vote for him regardless, because it’s not about having someone who fits me 100%, it’s about who fits me better. And Hickenlooper does.”
Beginning in 2013, Colorado automatically mails ballots to all registered voters in the state. In the June primary, a record 99% of 1.5 million participants voted remotely via mail or ballot drop off box. Centennial State ballots go in the mail Friday and are due back by Election Day.
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