Moments after U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner visited with the owner of Dirt Coffee Bar in downtown Littleton on a recent Monday morning, he ran into a family friend.

“Oh my gosh, you’re from out on the Eastern Plains? Good to see you!” Gardner beamed, his smile exploding as he shook hands with a woman named Linda, who was enjoying a cup of coffee at a table in front of the café.

“Bud’s your dad? No way! Small world!” said Gardner as the two began to swap stories about the weather and her recent trip home to help her father plant a crop.

A year before Democrats are likely to nominate a challenger to Republican Gardner's 2020 Senate re-election bid — at last count, 10 candidates were running in the primary, with more expected to join the sprawling field — and 16 months before the general election, Gardner was conducting a tour of Littleton’s Main Street arranged by his Senate office, visiting with business owners.

Then he was headed to a discussion with Littleton's mayor about federal funding for transportation and Gardner’s work on education issues, including STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) education and career and technical training.

Gardner ranks as the most vulnerable Republican senator up for election next year, according to just about every available metric. He’s one of just two GOP incumbents seeking re-election in a state won by Hillary Clinton — Maine’s Susan Collins is the other.

And his support even among Republicans is soft, with a fresh poll showing just 60% of Colorado’s GOP voters hold a favorable opinion of him, compared to 90% who view President Donald Trump favorably.

When Gardner scored a slim upset win over Democrat Mark Udall in 2014 — the first time an incumbent senator had been sent packing by Colorado voters in 36 years — he benefited from a wave that swept Republicans into office across the country during President Barack Obama’s second midterm, typically an occasion when the party that holds the White House loses Senate and congressional seats.

By all accounts, he’ll be facing strong headwinds blowing in the opposite direction this time.

“People are calling us the underdogs. Well, the underdogs always have to fight to win and Cory likes fighting,” said Chris Hansen, Gardner’s 2014 campaign manager and the general consultant for his re-election bid.

No easy path

There’s a vast difference between the electorate in midterm elections and in presidential years. In 2016, nearly 1 million more Coloradans cast votes than in the 2014 midterm, and they leaned more to the left. Expect a similarly swollen number of voters next year compared to 2018, when Democrats swept to power statewide and in numerous local races that haven’t favored Democrats in generations.

Add to that the results of the 2016 elections, which saw voters in every state with a Senate race for the first time pick a senator and presidential candidate from the same party. That outcome could spell the end of the kind of ticket-splitting that Gardner will need if, as early polling indicates, Trump is unlikely to carry Colorado next year.

“I think we've got to continue to do the work that we're doing, to grow the economy, create more opportunities and just put Colorado solutions forward,” Gardner told Colorado Politics. “That's what I'm going to continue to do.”

Gardner’s path to a second term will require threading a particularly narrow needle, but even some of his most skeptical critics acknowledge it isn’t impossible.

He’ll have to navigate around Trump’s deep unpopularity with the state’s unaffiliated voters while keeping fickle Republicans at his side.

A recent survey by a GOP pollster shows that unaffiliated votes — about 40% of the state's active registered voters — disapprove of Trump by a “toxic” 2-1 margin, Magellan Strategies founder David Flaherty has said, with more than one-third of unaffiliated voters saying they were more likely to vote against Republicans because of Trump’s influence.

According to Gardner’s campaign team and Republican strategists who have successfully managed the kind of election Gardner will face, his path to a second term involves a combination of letting Cory be Cory while counting on enough of Colorado’s notoriously independent-minded voters to confound expectations.

They’re also hoping the opposition nominates a presidential candidate — and maybe even a Senate challenger — who leans so far to the left that some of the state’s swing voters will cast a ballot for Gardner to keep a check on the Democrats, though they stress that isn’t a requirement.

"I don't think things could have started out better for us this cycle, with the presidential primary field getting way out to the left saying crazy stuff, and the same thing is happening in the Democrats’ Senate primary,” Hansen told Colorado Politics.

“There’s no sugarcoating this, Cory does not have an easy path,” said Tyler Sandberg, who steered U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman to a convincing win in the 6th Congressional District in 2016, the same year the battleground district’s voters opted for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump, only to see six-term Republican Coffman rejected by the same voters in last year’s midterm election.

Last year, voters registered their dislike for Trump by voting against Republicans up and down the ticket — “Every Republican candidate was named Donald Trump if they were on the ballot in 2018,” Sandberg said.

But in 2020, Coloradans will have the opportunity to split their ticket next year, like they did with Clinton and Coffman in 2016.

“They get to vote against Trump if they want to. That wasn't an option in 2018,” Sandberg said.

“Cory represents the kind of Republican that can still win Colorado. The ones who come across angry, dour, can't win anymore. Voters want both sides. They want people to have conflicting points of view and compromise," he said.

“Cory’s political fortunes are reliant on the Democrat who wins the nomination,” he noted. “People are judging Cory in a vacuum, and that's not how elections work.”

'We have the best candidate'

If he was charting the Gardner campaign’s course — he isn’t — Sandberg said the approach he would take is clear.

“Cory has an uphill challenge, but he is a preternatural campaigner with charisma for days, a very savvy political mind,” he said.

“Democrats and the left like to pretend it's a fait accompli, when it is not. Applying the lessons of 2018 is a mistake. Mike Coffman's 2016 campaign was a great example — you have to emphasize what your local brand is. Cory is someone who is deeply connected to Colorado.”

Hours after the polls closed the November night in 2014 when Colorado voters sent Gardner to the Senate, returned Coffman to Congress and elected Republicans to every statewide constitutional office except governor, GOP organizers confided that their job was made easier by Democrats who revealed their every step ahead of time in the press, describing the moves their rivals could then try to thwart.

It’s a safe bet Gardner’s team will keep their playbook close to the vest again this time, refusing to make it easy for Democrats to counter their game plan by spelling it out before the election.

Accordingly, Hansen declined to discuss his plan in an interview with Colorado Politics, but sketched out the campaign’s approach in broad strokes.

“This comes down to [Democratic] strategists trying to convince everybody they are the rock stars, but what it really comes down to is, we will win because we believe in Cory Gardner,” he said.

He noted Colorado voters’ propensity to split their tickets — electing Democrat Ken Salazar to the Senate the same year they gave their votes to President George W. Bush, as well as handing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper a second term the same time they elected Gardner.

“It all comes back to one thing," Hansen said. "Democrats think they'll run the right ads at the right time, but we have the best candidate in the country, and he's done an incredible job for Colorado — and that's our game plan.”

Gardner told Colorado Politics that he’s confident he can win re-election by mounting what he terms “a solutions-oriented campaign.”

“It's about the people of Colorado. It's about making sure that not just the Front Range succeeds but the Eastern Plains and the Western Slope succeed as well,” he said.

“There are people in this state that don't know anybody who voted for Hillary Clinton. Maybe there's somebody who doesn't realize Donald Trump lost by a little less than 5 percent," added Gardner. "That's better than John McCain or Mitt Romney did in Colorado — Romney lost by 6, McCain lost by 8, and it wasn't that long ago.”

Asked how the state’s current electoral landscape differs from 2014, Gardner smiled.

“There seems to be sort of this idea that when Democrats win, it's permanent, and when Republicans win, it's temporary. I just don't believe that.”

Winning despite Trump

“Absolutely Cory can win this race,” said veteran Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, who served two terms as state GOP chairman after managing a streak of winning Republican campaigns for governor and the U.S. Senate.

“It will not be easy. He's got a huge task in front of him. But he is a very talented and likable, and he's got a great story to tell about what he's done for Colorado,” he said.

“Yes, the electorate has changed over the years — Colorado has always been a very dynamic state with a constant influx of new people,” Wadhams added.

“But the dynamics of a statewide race for governor or senator has not changed in the last 30 or 40 years — both parties have a strong base of support, and you've got a huge reservoir of unaffiliated voters that Republicans have to be able to compete for. I think Cory will be very competitive with those voters.”

Added Wadhams: “I think Cory personality-wise matches what a lot of these new, millennial, unaffiliated voters are going to want in a senator.”

Gardner’s embrace of Trump — he endorsed the president's re-election bid in January, after initially opposing Trump's candidacy during the 2016 primary season — isn’t without its risks, Wadhams and other strategists conceded.

“It’s going to be very hard for President Trump to carry Colorado. But even if Trump does not carry Colorado, there will be a reservoir of unaffiliated voters who vote for the Democratic nominee but are going to be open to voting for Cory Gardner. That's how I think he wins. He will be able to transcend what goes on in the presidential race,” Wadhams said.

“I don't think it is so much standing up to Trump as exercising independent judgment,” he added, pointing to Gardner’s recent position on Trump’ tariffs. “He was defending Colorado when he did that. It's not so much he needs to be an enemy or opponent of Trump — but issue by issue, if he has a thoughtful disagreement with the president, he expresses that.”

Sandberg said Gardner won’t have to stand in opposition to Trump so much as paint an implicit contrast.

“Cory's brand is the un-Trump — relentlessly positive, optimistic, charitable. All the things that bother people about Trump, Cory is literally the polar opposite,” he said.

“You're not trying to reinvent someone; Cory's got a lot of positives that haven't been emphasized simply because the Democrats have been in an echo chamber the last five years,” Sandberg added. “Cory will have the resources to prosecute that case.”

A fundraising powerhouse -- bolstered by his stint heading the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2016 cycle, when he amassed a donor network that could come in handy over the next 16 months -- Gardner is expected to be able to blanket the airwaves and digital platforms.

But the Democratic nominee will almost certainly have the funds necessary to mount a strong challenge, since Colorado’s seat is seen as essential to either party winning the majority in the Senate next year.

Wadhams didn’t sound concerned that Gardner risks losing Republican support by his policy differences with Trump.

“I think Cory has put distance between himself and the president when it was necessary, but he has been there for the president's overall agenda when necessary. It's an agenda Cory can talk about. What's his Democratic opponent going to say, ‘I will vote to repeal the tax cut,’ which is essentially a tax increase?”

Touting bipartisanship

Gardner faces a drumbeat of criticism from high-profile members of the GOP’s grassroots, who charge he’s hewed too moderate a course. But Wadhams said that by the time Election Day approaches, they’ll be in Gardner’s corner.

“It is frustrating to hear the bashing that some Republicans give Cory about not being supportive enough of Trump when in fact Cory has been there for the president on the most important issues — the tax cut bill, judicial nominees, the deregulation agenda," Wadhams said.

"Those are issues that will be assets to him in the general election. It befuddles me when I hear this bashing of Sen. Gardner by some Trump loyalists in the party. Would they rather have had Mark Udall in the Senate the past six years?”

Some leading strategists, including ones who spoke with Colorado Politics on the condition they not be identified so they could speak freely, speculated that Gardner could re-introduce himself to voters early next year the same way Bennet did almost four years ago, once the majority of voters begin paying attention to the Senate race.

In TV ads, Bennet descended the steps at Red Rocks — Gardner could pick another iconic Colorado location — clad in a fleece jacket, talking about the bipartisan solutions he’s managed to wrangle through an increasingly divided Washington, D.C.

Democrats are eager to highlight Gardner’s most polarizing positions — repealing the increasingly popular Affordable Car Act, backing the Republicans’ overhaul of the tax code, siding with Trump on the border emergency, voting to confirm conservative judges. But the Republican will be able to highlight a record of accomplishments that could be music to the ears of voters who aren’t interested in the endless partisan battles.

Among them, Gardner ranks as the fifth most bipartisan senator, with eight bills signed into law by Presidents Obama and Trump since he arrived in the Senate — more than the rest of the state’s delegation combined over the same period. He might tout his ongoing work to land the Space Command and the national headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado, as well as securing funding to finish the Veterans Administration hospital in Aurora and allocate hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects and making sure communities affected by the Gold King Mine disaster get federal funds.

“People like senators who are able to work across the line,” Sandberg said. “For heaven's sake, he's cosponsoring a bill with Elizabeth Warren on marijuana. When Cory begins to reminds voters of all the great bipartisan work he's done in Washington in substantive ways, it's going to remind folks of something they haven't heard for a while, since all they've heard for the last five years is Cory-bashing from the left wing.”

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to make clear that Gardner has had more bills signed into law than the rest of the Colorado congressional delegation combined since he became a senator.

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