Technically, it is still a couple of weeks early to write Cory Gardner’s political obituary. But you know that such articles are being prepared in newsrooms across the state and beyond.
I will leave to others the boilerplate biography and summary of major bills along with the requisite matching quotes from a well-placed ally and adversary. Instead, let me suggest that it did not have to be this way.
Gardner’s defeat, barring an election miracle more biblical than political, may have been unavoidable. But there are worse fates than an electoral loss. What has been completely avoidable and utterly voluntary on Gardner’s part is the damage to his integrity caused by recent years of knowing better but doing worse; of toeing the intellectually loose and morally corrupt Trumpian line.
Gardner’s 2014 triumph was the only Republican win in a statewide race for top offices (Governor and U.S. Senate) since Bill Owens’s easy reelection in 2002. It has been a long, pronounced dry spell for Colorado Republicans in a political drought now seemingly without end. Looking back six years, Gardner was the beneficiary of a red tide in an off-year and a tired, strategically suboptimal campaign by his opponent, then-incumbent Sen. Mark Udall. Even in those favorable circumstances, Gardner’s winning margin was modest, less than two points.
His 2020 reelection was always going to be problematic – in a presidential year in a state taking on a more pronounced shade of blue with each passing year. Then Donald Trump came upon the scene and the degree of difficulty confronting Gardner skyrocketed. This is a state that has never warmed to Trump and never resonated with his core message of grievance and resentment.
Though it defies the color wheel, the mixture of Trump orange and Republican red has only produced a deeper blue in Colorado.
During Gardner’s early Senate years of 2015 and 2016, he seemed to have Trump figured out. He had little good to say about candidate Trump and kept all possible distance. In response to Trump’s xenophobic call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Gardner went out of his way to refer to the presidential aspirant as, “a buffoon.” Hooray for candor and accurate appraisal.
At the 2016 GOP convention in Cleveland that confirmed Trump’s nomination, Gardner, with no shortage of press fanfare, got in and out of town before Trump’s arrival.
Even in year-one of Trump’s administration, Gardner was wary. The Washington Post wrote a lengthy piece holding Gardner up as a model of how a Republican senator could navigate Trump’s regime, neither seeking conflict nor backing down when it arises.
But then it all flipped. Trump took a charismatic, almost cultish control of the Republican Party with many lifelong conservatives who couldn’t stomach the kool-aid fleeing their affiliation. Trump and Gardner needed each other given the latter’s role as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Instead of using that mutual dependency for leverage, Gardner shifted to servile obedience.
The rest, as they say, is history. Gardner made a political calculation that he would do nothing to challenge the President or incite the unforgiving Trump base. Any inclination toward independence or assertiveness gave way to a docile, fawning acquiescence.
How did this benefit Gardner? Does anyone really think the Space Command would not be currently housed in Colorado had Gardner carried himself with more backbone? Or that his outdoors conservation legislation would not have passed had he more often stood his ground?
All this leads to a question far larger than Cory Gardner. He is but one example of an entire cadre of previously strong, confident Republicans who knew Donald Trump for who he is but bit their tongues if not outrightly sold their souls to avoid a 3 a.m. presidential Twitter attack and a bit of social media upset on the part of a few true-believers.
What did Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, Cory Gardner, and this merry band of Senate Republicans get for their compliant, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil obsequiousness?
For starters, three GOP senators walked away from their coveted presidential proximity with COVID.
Were some judgeships and a few tax breaks worth the frequent abandonment of principle and a good measure of honor? And now, the looming, likely loss of their Senate majority? As if a few, token, tardy, tepid head nods in the direction of a tiny separation from the president on the part of Gardner and other embattled incumbents in these waning campaign days will do a thing to cause voters to forget the years of silent complicity.
Those with a romantic notion of politics may have wished for Gardner to offer a smiley imitation of John McCain or Jeff Flake or Bob Corker and speak some unvarnished truth about the real Donald Trump. But that requires fortitude and a commitment to principle above a focus on the tactics of political survival – tactics that proved empty in the end.
McCain is gone. Flake and Corker, among others, followed his call to “fight for a cause larger than yourself” into self-imposed but still outspoken political retirement, unwilling to pay the price of indecency required for viability in Trump’s Republican Party. They are as politically marginalized as Gardner is about to be. However, their morning gaze into the mirror is surely more satisfying.
Cory Gardner is still a young man and should have a full, productive life ahead. There are worse resume listings than former United States senator. With age comes an increased capacity for reflection. May he use that to consider the bolder, righteous, alternate path not taken.
What changed was not Trump’s “buffoonery” but Gardner’s accommodation of it. It could have been otherwise.