There’s a number Colorado voters will be hearing a lot between now and the 2020 election: 98.
That’s the percentage of times U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican seeking his second term, has voted with the Trump administration, according to one measure.
If it sounds familiar, it should. It’s within a percentage point of the number Gardner used to bludgeon Mark Udall, the Democrat he unseated in 2014, by tying the incumbent’s record to an unpopular president.
Udall had “voted with [President Barack] Obama 99% of the time,” Gardner and his Republican allies repeated every chance they got.
Already, Gardner’s opponents have started a similar drumbeat.
“Sen. Gardner is once again putting his own political concerns first and won’t condemn the president he’s voted with 98% of the time,” said Alyssa Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Democratic Party, in a broadside aimed at Gardner on Sept. 26, when House Democrats opened an inquiry into impeaching President Donald Trump.
It’s virtually identical to the attack Democrats mounted last year against U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, the five-term Republican who lost his Aurora-based suburban seat to Jason Crow in 2018, partly due to incessant reminders that Coffman had voted with Trump 96% of the time, despite insisting that he would “stand up” to Trump when he disagreed with the president.
Coffman’s aides complained that the blunt number obscured numerous times Coffman had broken with Trump on key issues, particularly involving immigration policy, and on topics that hadn’t come up for votes in Congress.
The number representing Gardner’s affinity for voting with Trump, like Udall’s with Obama, is calculated by CQ, the Washington, D.C., insider publication that used to be known as the Congressional Quarterly.
According to CQ, a lawmaker’s Presidential Support score represents every instance when the member of Congress votes in agreement with the position articulated by the president or an authorized spokesman.
Gardner’s 98% presidential support since Trump took office is the average of the 99% he scored in 2017, the president’s first year in the White House, and the 97% Gardner scored in 2018.
The CQ Presidential Support rating ties Gardner more closely to Trump than the score reported by the FiveThirtyEight website, which shows Gardner with an 89.5% overall Trump-support score as of Oct. 3. (While the FiveThirtyEight score uses the same criteria as CQ, it doesn’t include the senators’ votes to confirm most of the administration’s judicial nominees, which account for more than 100 votes since Trump took office.)
That FiveThirtyEight tally’s two most recent Senate votes found Gardner agreeing with Trump both times — the nomination of Eugene Scalia as secretary of labor and in a vote to overturn the president’s declaration of an emergency in order to divert funding from military projects to a wall on the country’s southern border.
Like Coffman’s campaign, Gardner’s supporters might make a case that the senator has parted ways with Trump numerous times on hot-button issues, more often than any Trump score would indicate, even if he’s frequently sided with the administration on less controversial decisions. (U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Gardner’s Democratic counterpart in Colorado, after all, has voted with Trump 26.2% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, and Bennet is seeking the nomination to run against Trump.)
Good luck with that, Democrats respond, confident that the Trump score will be Gardner’s albatross.
According to a Morning Consult tracking poll updated on Oct. 3, Trump is viewed unfavorably by 56% of Colorado voters and favorably by 41%, remarkably similar to Obama’s position among Colorado voters prior to the 2014 election, when Republicans attempted to link the incumbent president to the senator from his own party.
The difference is, while Obama was underwater in Colorado heading into the 2014 election — his disapproval rating was 55%, with 43% approving of the job he was doing in September 2014 poll — the Democrat had won the state twice, by 8.95 percentage points in 2008 and 5.3 percentage points in 2012. Trump lost Colorado by 4.91 percentage points — or “a little over 4 points,” as Colorado Republicans have been characterizing it lately — and the state’s voters have taken a sharp turn toward the Democrats since then.
When Obama won Colorado’s nine electoral votes in 2012, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the state by about 60,000 active registered voters. Seven years later, that margin has almost precisely flipped, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by 55,000 active registered voters.
Like Gardner, who has managed to be elsewhere when Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have visited Colorado this year, Udall found a reason to avoid Obama when the president landed in Denver to headline a fundraiser for Udall, drawing jeers from critics.
Udall also famously tried to distance himself from Obama during his first debate with Gardner, when he said, “Let me tell you, the White House, when they look down the front lawn, the last person they want to see coming is me.”
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
As recently as 2014, a Republican could win a Senate seat in Colorado just two years after the Democratic presidential candidate carried the state, as Gardner demonstrated in the wake of Obama’s convincing win in 2012.
For decades, Colorado voters have split their presidential and U.S. Senate votes nearly as often as they’ve aligned their choices, stretching back to the 1970s when Democrat Floyd Haskell ousted a three-term Republican in 1972, the same year Richard Nixon won the state’s electoral votes on his way to a landslide re-election. Democrat Gary Hart won a second term in 1980 even as Colorado voters tilted toward Republican Ronald Reagan, and Democrat Ken Salazar won a Senate seat in 2004 while Republican George W. Bush carried the state.
But in recent years, pundits and political scientists have observed that Senate elections have become increasingly nationalized, with voters rarely splitting their ballots between the president and a senator from the other party, and there’s little sign that will change in next year’s election.
While Udall hadn’t been pegged the most endangered Democratic senator up for election in 2014 the way Gardner has been described as the most vulnerable Republican this time around, the state’s Senate race is likely again a bellwether for control of the upper chamber. (In 2014, Republicans needed to gain six seats to take the majority from the Democrats and won nine, while in 2020 Democrats need to net three or four seats to take it back, depending on whether a Democrat or Republican sits in the White House.)
Gardner and his aides maintain that Colorado remains more of a swing state than recent elections would indicate. Its voters, after all, reversed course after reliably backing Republicans from the late 1990s until the early years of the 21st century — when the GOP dominated the statewide and presidential votes in Colorado nearly as resoundingly as the Democrats have lately — and could turn on a dime again, they argue.
What’s more, Democrats have yet to settle on a nominee to go up against Gardner, and the result of their crowded Senate primary could make a difference.
National Republicans have already started meddling in the primary. Since late summer, the National Republican Senatorial Committee — a group Gardner headed in the 2016 cycle — has lobbed what could pass for attacks against some of the more left-leaning Democratic contenders for being “too liberal” for Colorado or for embracing some of the party’s more aggressively progressive policies, taking a page from Democrats who have tried to steer the opposition’s primary voters toward more extreme options.
And as anyone who has endured the past three years and the news cycle’s constant churn can attest, there’s no guarantee that the 2020 vote will even turn on the drama surrounding what could be impeachment proceedings that could force Gardner to give Trump a straight up-or-down vote, if they take place many months before the election.
But at this point, about a year before Colorado voters start to receive their ballots, Gardner’s fortunes appear bound to Trump’s as powerfully as the lawmaker’s voting record suggests.