After two terms in the House, Gardner won his Senate seat in 2014 by just 1.9 percentage points against the Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. He campaigned as a freethinker and relative moderate on issues such as immigration, supporting a move to give undocumented immigrants serving in the military a path to citizenship. Once in office, he continued to walk a sometimes maverick path. He worked with his fellow Coloradan, Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, on a bipartisan immigration measure. And he has opposed the Trump administration’s anti-marijuana policies, collaborating instead with Senator Elizabeth Warren to allow cannabis businesses to use the banking system in states such as Colorado, where pot is legal.
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In 2016, he took on the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s campaign and fundraising arm, and his efforts there helped defeat red-state incumbent Democratic senators, including Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, in 2018. That kind of credential might once have been rewarded as a sign of party loyalty, but seems to mean less among Colorado’s increasingly conservative GOP electorate, a leading Republican pollster there explained to me.
“To be honest, he had a very high profile running the senatorial committee, but he also always tried to come across as a senator for all Coloradans, which is really the kind of image you want to project to voters,” said the pollster, David Flaherty of Magellan Strategies, in Louisville, Colorado. “But Donald Trump has completely blown up that strategy. He’s more popular in Colorado than George W. Bush was in the winter of 2001 after 9/11. The bottom line is that in our state, he has to run with President Trump, win or lose. Events beyond Cory’s control have affected the realities here.”
Gardner is far from the sole Republican forced to toe the Trump line or pay the price. Senators Martha McSally in Arizona and Thom Tillis in North Carolina are hewing to a similar strategy even in the face of strong Democratic opposition in states trending purple. Former Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both of whom were sometimes outspoken critics of Trump, retired rather than facing probable defeat from more conservative primary challengers in 2018. Former Senator Dean Heller of Nevada mostly supported Trump, but it still cost him, two ways: In 2018, he became the sole Senate Republican to lose a reelection race, to his Democratic challenger, Jacky Rosen. At the same time, Heller’s brief flirtation with opposing Trump’s proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act was enough to cost him a hoped-for seat in the president’s Cabinet.
“The party is now more a cult than a party,” says Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional scholar at the American Enterprise institute and an Atlantic contributor. “The imperative not to be shunned or excommunicated is overwhelming—and it’s not just fear of Trump or Fox News. All their friends would treat them like apostates too.” GOP incumbents face a pragmatic choice, Ornstein told me: lose their base or risk losing swing voters. “They have all decided to double down on the base, and in Colorado that is an especially problematic choice, given the sizable number of suburban, college-educated voters repelled by Trump.”