In politics, timing is everything.
Just ask Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who was a second-term House member who jumped the line to make a last-minute bid for the upper chamber in 2014 and did something no Colorado politician had done in decades — unseat an incumbent senator.
Gardner upset the chessboard and effectively cleared a crowded primary field just days before precinct caucuses when he declared for the seat held by Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
That November, the preternaturally cheerful and highly disciplined campaigner rode a national Republican wave to eke past Udall by 1.9 percentage points.
Gardner’s upset marked the only top-of-the-ticket win by a Colorado Republican since 2004, when President George W. Bush carried the state.
Colorado didn’t lurch to the right the night Gardner ousted Udall — Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper won re-election by a slightly wider margin — but observers agree that Gardner’s steady, smiling attacks on Udall, coupled with typical midterm dissatisfaction with the party occupying the White House, created a perfect storm.
While Democrats insist Gardner is simply a slick politician, The Atlantic’s Molly Ball cemented the “relentlessly upbeat” Republican's image on the eve of the 2014 election when she described him as “somewhere between a human ray of sunshine and an overcaffeinated hamster."
Gardner is running for a second term next year in an election that could be as inhospitable to Republicans as 2014 was to Democrats, with President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the state threatening to drag down even the most popular and skilled GOP campaigners.
In that setting, some Democrats are wondering if the time is ripe for another junior member of the congressional delegation — a rising star who gives Gardner a run for his money in the anthropomorphic sunshine department — to make a run for the U.S. Senate.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, who won the 2nd Congressional District seat in November, has been dazzling progressives on the national stage since before he was sworn in. He’s also made a habit of impressing political opponents.
There’s no doubt Gardner faces an uphill battle in his bid for another term. Colorado’s electorate has been trending to the left, and more Democrats than usual tend to turn out in presidential years.
But the battleground state’s notorious ticket-splitting voters — the ones who voted for both Gardner and Hickenlooper in 2014 — could be primed to flex their muscles again in 2020.
What’s more, next year’s election takes place in an environment when Republicans won’t be in control of every branch of federal government, like they were before last year’s election, so ornery voters won’t have as easy a choice to simply vote against the party in power.
As I report in this week's Colorado Politics cover story, Democrats are lining up for the chance to take on Gardner. In the last couple of weeks, two powerhouse candidates — former state Sen. Mike Johnston and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — threw their hats in the ring, and a third — former House Speaker Crisanta Duran — is biding her time, expected to launch a campaign within a few months.
Others Democrats either in the race or mulling bids include scientist and educator Trish Zornio; former ambassador and congressional candidate Dan Baer, the outgoing head of the state’s Department of Higher Education; state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail; and former U.S. Attorney John Walsh.
Strategists say they take Hickenlooper at his word when the popular former governor says he's mulling a run for president and has no intention of pivoting to a Senate campaign, despite pressure from national Democrats.
Likewise, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, another potential Gardner foe, has given no indication he's considering a run — particularly after winding up back in the majority in the House after last year's election.
But none other than U.S. Rep. Ken Buck — a Republican who sits about as far as possible on the political spectrum from Neguse — sang Neguse's praises in a recent radio interview, comparing the Democrat to Gardner and invoking his Republican colleague's nickname.
Saying he was "thoroughly impressed" with Neguse, Buck said in a KNUS interview flagged by the Colorado Times Recorder: "Joe is a, just a — he's a Cory Gardner. He is a ray of sunshine. He just has this bubbly personality."
Acknowledging that they disagree politically, Buck added, "He’s exactly the kind of person that you want to see in politics.”
When Neguse was appointed by Hickenlooper to run the state Department of Regulatory Agencies, the Republican who had just defeated him in the 2014 election, then-Secretary of State Wayne Williams, introduced Neguse at his legislative confirmation hearing.
“Joe and I had the opportunity to both run for secretary of state for more than a year [as] we went across the state and showed up at different forums,” Williams told lawmakers. “There were some things we disagreed on, but there were also a lot of things we agreed on. And we did, throughout the campaign, keep it civil.”
The son of Eritrean refugees and the first African-American sent to Congress by Colorado voters, Neguse was tapped in late December by then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to deliver the Democrats' weekly address and was elected by fellow incoming freshmen Democrats as one of two representatives to House leadership.
He's also landed plum assignments on key committees — Judiciary and Natural Resources — and an appointment to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
There’s no shortage of potential Gardner challengers, but wary Democrats insist it’s no slam-dunk and point to the fact that Colorado voters for decades have only sent sitting members of Congress to the Senate.
The only exceptions were in 2004 when voters elected then-state Attorney General Ken Salazar, and in 2010 when U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who had been appointed to replace Salazar two years earlier, won his first full term.
In every other election since 1974, when Democrat Gary Hart won the first of his two terms, Colorado’s senators have come directly from the House — Bill Armstrong, Tim Wirth, Hank Brown, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Wayne Allard, Udall and Gardner.
That alone doesn’t mean Neguse has the best shot, Democratic strategists tell Colorado Politics, but it argues in his favor.
Republicans and some Democrats scoff at the possibility Neguse might give up a safe congressional seat just months into his first term, though Democrats also point out there are plenty of candidates who deferred to Neguse when he ran for it who would be happy for it to be an open seat.
Neguse isn't talking about a Senate run — at a recent town hall, he smiled and shook his head when a reporter asked him if he's considering it — but the Republicans are taking the possibility of a Neguse run seriously.
Among the more than 100 constituents who crowded a Broomfield community center on Feb. 2 sat a GOP tracker, holding his phone, recording Neguse's every word.