On impeachment, pressure on Colorado senator is from right

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Cory Gardner

FILE – In this March 13, 2019 file photo, reporters pose questions to Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., on his way to a vote at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

DENVER (AP) — If Democrats were to have any hope of shaping the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump to their liking, they’d need help from Republicans like Sen. Cory Gardner.

Gardner, a young and upbeat senator who didn’t endorse Trump’s 2016 election, represents Democratic-trending Colorado. But he’s walked the party line during Trump’s impeachment and subsequent skirmishes over the president’s trial.

Gardner’s statements on the standoff that has seized the Senate have largely aligned with the president’s most fervent defenders. He has slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the process Democrats used to impeach Trump in the House and carefully avoided criticizing the president.

Democrats have acknowledged that it’s unlikely the GOP-led Senate will remove Trump from office. But they had hoped impeachment will at least put pressure on some vulnerable Republican senators as Democrats fight to win the chamber in November.

Gardner’s posture is one sign of the limits of that strategy. While the Democrats and Republicans battle over how and when to try the president for high crimes and misdemeanors, Gardner and several other GOP senators in tight races this year have shown little inclination to risk the wrath of Trump supporters at home.

It’s a political calculation that values loyalty to Trump and his base over any bipartisan appeal. And it’s one measure of the grip Trump has over the party.

“If (Gardner) does anything that turns off the Trump base in Colorado, that’s more dangerous than anything from the other side,” said Dick Wadhams, a veteran GOP strategist in the state. “I’m not sure impeachment complicates things any more for Cory.”

That dynamic also helps explain why other Republicans in competitive states, including Sens. Susan Collins in Maine, Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Martha McSally in Arizona, have followed their party’s lead on impeachment proceedings.

Democrats would need to net four seats to take back the Senate — or three seats plus win the White House to have a tie-breaking vice president. One in their ranks, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, is considered vulnerable and also squeezed by impeachment. Democrats can also hope for surprises in places like Kansas, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that he won’t run for an open seat, leaving some Republicans worried about the strength of their candidates.

By some measures, Gardner is the most endangered Republican on the target list. He won by less than 2% of the vote in 2014, elected largely on the midterm backlash to President Barack Obama. In one ad, Gardner pledged that “when my party is wrong, I’ll say it.”

Gardner was the only Colorado Republican to win a top-of-the-ticket race in the past 15 years, as an influx of white, college-educated transplants has shifted the state’s politics to the left. In 2016, Trump lost Colorado by 5 percentage points, and in 2018, Democrats won every single statewide race.

Gardner is hoping he can squeeze every vote out of Colorado’s diminishing share of Republican voters. He also wants to appeal to the state’s long tradition of pragmatic centrists with Colorado-specific efforts like allowing marijuana businesses to access the banking system, expanding Rocky Mountain National Park and moving Bureau of Land Management headquarters to western Colorado. His strategists think that combination could secure him reelection.

But analysts note it’s a difficult path in a time when Trump dominates all political conversations.

“There’s a lot of factors that are going to make things very difficult for Cory,” said Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan pollster based in Denver. “Impeachment just puts another issue out there.”

Gardner has carefully limited his statements on impeachment, sparking headlines in October when he refused to say that a politician should not solicit foreign help in an election. The dodge includes a defense of the president, suggesting Trump is the victim of partisanship.

In a statement on Tuesday, Gardner spokeswoman Annalyse Keller said: “Senator Gardner believes Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment inquiry to appease the far-left has been a total circus that has only served to divide this country. Senator Gardner will be a juror and unlike what has happened in the House, he is confident the process in the Senate will be bipartisan and fair.”

The key test on impeachment may come after the trial begins and Republicans like Gardner are forced onto the record on whether they want to admit new testimony and documents, as Democrats have advocated.

Gardner’s alignment with the president has been gradual. The senator rescinded his endorsement of Trump in October 2016 after Trump was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. But, after Trump’s election, Gardner’s criticism of the president has been muted.

He chastised Trump after the president appeared to blame “both sides” for violence at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. But Gardner has been careful not to be personally critical of the president on any number of issues, from demands that Democratic congresswomen “go back” to their home countries to complaints that immigrants come from Africa rather than Norway.

Meanwhile, Gardner has backed many of the president’s priorities, including votes for Trump’s health care proposal, tax plans and conservative judges. He also ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2018 and helped engineer a cling-to-the-president midterm strategy that expanded the GOP majority even as they lost control of the House.

“At this point he’s shown his allegiance is to Trump and not to the voters of Colorado,” Craig Hughes, a Democratic strategist in the state, said of Gardner. “Once you’ve gone this far with Trump, a break probably gets you less than it costs you.”

Gardner’s strategy contrasts with that of another Colorado Republican, former Rep. Mike Coffman. Coffman continued to criticize Trump through his 2018 reelection campaign in a competitive district in the Denver suburbs. Coffman lost by double digits.

Josh Penry, a Republican strategist who advised Coffman and dislikes Trump, said Gardner’s reluctance to criticize the president makes sense. If Gardner ever turned on the president, Democrats would remain critical. “It’d be ‘thoughts and prayers’ and ‘it’s just words,’” he said, citing two criticisms thrown at Coffman during the last election.

“You can never do enough because this isn’t about Trump,” Penry said. “It’s that they want to defeat Cory Gardner.”

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