Cory Gardner Mitch McConnell

In this file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., listens at right as Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 1, 2017, as GOP leaders discussed the Republican health care bill that collapsed due to opposition within GOP ranks.

A liberal nonprofit is launching a campaign this week to call attention to U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner's record of siding with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell more than 90% of the time, even though the Colorado Republican once promised to stand up to his own party.

“Coloradans deserve a leader; instead Cory Gardner is acting like a puppet. Mitch McConnell pulls the strings, and Gardner dances," said Marie Aberger, spokeswoman for the campaign, sponsored by the left-leaning Rocky Mountain Values.

"Enough is enough. It’s time for Gardner to listen to Coloradans and cut the strings that tie him to Mitch McConnell and his wealthy special interest backers.”

The group has a website — CuttheStrings.co — and plans to unleash digital advertising urging Gardner, who is seeking a second term this year, to break ranks with the GOP leader on legislation involving health care and climate change, the group said.

Rocky Mountain Values, a dark-money group, isn't required to report its donors or expenditures. Since last fall, it's been waging what a spokeswoman says is a seven-figure advertising campaign calling on Gardner to preserve access to health care and protect people with pre-existing conditions.

"Our focus is on influencing Gardner to do what’s right for Coloradans instead of voting in lockstep with Mitch McConnell," Aberger said of the new campaign.

The group points to Gardner's votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut federal funding for Medicaid. It's also charging the Colorado lawmaker with failing to use his influence to bring House legislation on drug prices and wilderness areas to a vote in the Senate.

Gardner, for his part, has highlighted other efforts to secure access to health care, including work on legislation signed into law last year to help children with complex medical conditions, which won him a "Champion for Children's Health" designation from the Children’s Hospital Association.

"A lot of people are talking about Sen. Gardner’s ties to President Trump," Aberger said. "We’re saying the problems didn’t start with Trump, they started with McConnell. Even before Trump was in office, Cory Gardner was marching in step with McConnell."

The FiveThirtyEight political data site calculates that Gardner has aligned with Trump on 89.5% of his votes since the president was inaugurated — a number Democrats have been using to lash Gardner in a state where Trump isn't popular. 

Aberger pointed to research by ProPublica that found Gardner has voted with McConnell 92% of the time since he entered the Senate, including 96% of the time in the current Congress, which gaveled in at the beginning of 2019.

On votes the site considers "major," Gardner broke with the Republican leader twice in this Congress, both times in January 2019.

Gardner joined two other Republican senators on Jan. 16, 2019, voting to advance a resolution disapproving of Trump's approach to sanctions against Russia. On Jan. 24, 2019, Gardner was one of just six Republican senators who voted in favor of moving ahead with legislation to end the government shutdown.

In the end, Gardner's votes weren't enough to sway the Republican-controlled Senate, which rejected both motions. He hasn't crossed McConnell's position on major votes since.

A spokesman for Gardner's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.

The campaign echoes longstanding Republican efforts to link Democratic lawmakers and candidates to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including liberal use of puppetry metaphors.

When he was running for re-election the last four times, former U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and his surrogates only occasionally mentioned one of his Democratic challengers without uttering Pelosi's name in the same breath.

In 2018, Coffman lost his bid for a sixth term to Democrat Jason Crow, whose election was among the Democratic wins that handed the speaker's gavel back to Pelosi. Coffman was elected mayor of Aurora last fall in a nonpartisan race.

Whether McConnell will be as effective a bogeyman for Democrats seeking to pressure Gardner this year remains to be seen, but the Senate leader appears to be even less popular than Pelosi among voters.

McConnell's current favorably ratings are in the tank, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average that found only 29.3% of registered voters nationwide have a favorable opinion of the Kentucky politician, compared to 49.3% who view him unfavorably.

Pelosi, in contrast, is viewed favorably by 40.3% of registered voters nationwide, and unfavorably by 51%, RCP reports.

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