Witwer has spent much of the last decade advocating for a kinder, gentler, more unified GOP. He co-wrote a book, The Blueprint, detailing how Democrats took over Colorado through a combination of well-financed, coordinated advocacy and Republican infighting. (A more sinister take on the plotting cabal of rich, secretive liberals can be found in a new Citizens United film, Rocky Mountain Heist, narrated by Michelle Malkin and released this month.) After the 2012 election, when Obama won Colorado for the second time, Witwer wrote an op-ed for the Denver Post titled, "Republicans must improve or die."
To Republicans like Witwer and Ryan Call, the moderate Colorado GOP chairman, Gardner is a godsend: a principled conservative who doesn't come across as an impeachment-obsessed crank. Colorado Republicans are still dysfunctional—several moderates were defeated by fringe candidates in legislative primaries this year—but they've unified to a remarkable degree around Gardner, perhaps as much out of desperation as anything else. On the other hand, if he can't win, many fear the state may be lost to the GOP for good.
The comeback of Not That Kind of Republican is what even many Democrats say they want, decrying the GOP's rightward march even as they mine it for electoral advantage. On Monday night in Aurora, a diverse South Denver suburb, Democratic activists filled a high-school gymnasium to hear former President Bill Clinton pine for the sane Republicans of yesteryear. Gardner's ticket-mate, gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez, once questioned Obama's birth certificate and supported repealing the 17th Amendment, which mandates direct election of senators. "When he won the primary, people said he was a moderate, and I said, our standards are getting a little loose!" Clinton said. "It doesn't take much to qualify as a moderate Republican these days!"
Beauprez, like Gardner, has been able to position himself as moderate in part because the party has moved even further right. But Gardner has also pulled a neat trick, one that Clinton—the original New Democrat—might recognize: He's taken the Democrats' own strategy and turned it against them. It was Clinton, after all, who once turned his party around by running as Not That Kind of Democrat—a centrist who could break with the ideological left and focus on pocketbook issues. A decade later, Colorado Democrats also began to succeed by being Not That Kind of Democrat—focusing on quality-of-life issues like education, health care, and the environment, while Republicans descended into angry, gun-toting paranoia. They ran, essentially, as moderate Republicans.
Just look at Gardner's opponent, Mark Udall. Tall and craggy, with a slightly aloof demeanor, he's a skilled mountain climber who looks less like a senator than the head of Outward Bound—which he was for a decade before entering politics. Posed on a ridgeline in a ski jacket, Udall is a veritable mascot for the Colorado culture—in Clinton's words, "He looks like an ad for Colorado." When he first ran for office, he seemed authentic and nonpolitical.