Senate Republican campaigns chief Cory Gardner might've had the easiest job in Washington — if only Hillary Clinton had won.
Instead, the centrist-minded Coloradan has found himself in one of the toughest predicaments in town: leading the Republican battalion in what’s instead shaping up as an anti-Trump Democratic wave election, while at the same time trying to cut legislative deals with some of the senators he’s campaigning hardest to defeat. Gardner is going to need bipartisan accomplishments to survive his own swing-state reelection race in 2020.
It’s not exactly what the sunny, glad-handing pol was signing for when he put in for the job just before the 2016 election.
“He’s a brave man,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman and now the party whip. “I admire him for willing to take on the challenge.”
Gardner’s balancing act was on vivid display as a bipartisan immigration bill written by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was overwhelmingly defeated by his caucus on the Senate floor last month.
“Am I the only Republican?” Gardner asked his fellow GOP senators during the roll call on a bill to shield young immigrants from deportation. Three other GOP senators soon rushed to join him in support.
“It was an interesting moment,” Gardner said in an interview in his NRSC office.
But for Gardner, it was just another day on the political tightrope. As NRSC chairman, he’s got one of the most partisan jobs in Washington, yet is working overtime to cut a bipartisan mold.
One moment he’s working with Democrats on an immigration bill opposed by Trump and blasting the administration’s marijuana policies. The next he’s planning the political doom of those same Democrats and strategizing with Trump on how to keep the Senate in Republican hands.
“Campaigns shouldn’t interfere with the ability to work with each other,” Gardner said. “But that doesn’t mean when it comes to actual Election Day, that I’m not going to do everything I can to say that this [Republican] would do a better job.”
Not everyone is convinced that Gardner can pull off the balancing act.
“When you are the point person offering criticism of other members," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a top GOP target, "it puts you in a difficult position when you are trying to do bipartisan work."
Yet Gardner seems comfortable with it. He waxes optimistically about the prospects of taking out Heitkamp and the four other Democrats from deep red states that would give the GOP its largest majority in decades.
At the top of a lengthy interview he read headlines from POLITICO and other publications predicting the GOP’s impending doom in every election since 2010 — then bragged about the GOP’s position going into the midterms.
“The states where we are winning are states that are incredibly ready for a Republican candidate to win,” Gardner said. “This is an offensive cycle for us, and we have an opportunity to pick up seats that we shouldn’t have lost in the 2012 cycle.”
Though Gardner never admits that his party’s prospects have declined due to Trump’s unpopularity and the failure to score top-tier candidates in states like Montana, he is realistic about the challenges he faces. When pressed on how many seats Republicans might be able to pick up, he does a brief impression of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with his Kentucky drawl, saying that predicting Senate races is a fool’s errand.
“I would not [put a number]. I am optimistic about every single one of these races. Part of that is just because of who I am,” Gardner said, noting how rarely the GOP has built majorities of more than 55 seats in the last century. "We have to contend with history.”
Though Gardner is cautious in his predictions, he has taken some risks that have put him crosswise with his party. He opposed early drafts of the GOP bill to repeal Obamacare, holding out for a more generous approach to Medicaid. Gardner also voted against Trump’s trade representative and a Trump-backed surveillance bill.
And he took a surprisingly firm state against Roy Moore, the controversial Senate candidate in Alabama last year, arguing he should be expelled from the chamber for his alleged misconduct with young girls.
It might have hurt Moore’s chances and cost the GOP a Senate seat, but it boosted Gardner’s standing with his colleagues.
“Refusing to back Roy Moore, in his position, made it clear early on that the NRSC would not be doing that. And his reasonableness and articulate support for immigration reform really helps,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “It’s refreshing.”
Gardner’s role as a swing-state chairman is a shift from recent party practice where campaign chairmen came from safe GOP states like Texas, Mississippi and Kansas. And so it may be no surprise that Gardner has embraced the model his fellow Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet used in 2014 when he chaired the Democrats’ campaign arm and faced a tough reelection campaign: Stay low key and keep the politicking behind the scenes.
Unlike many Republicans who regularly skewer their at-risk Democratic colleagues, Gardner often refuses to blast vulnerable Democrats by name: “I don’t like talking about it at the Capitol. I just don’t.”
Keeping his own political future in mind, Gardner can’t afford to be seen back home as all in for Trump and his policies, even as he must work closely with the president and his team to pick up seats this fall in the 10 states Trump won in 2016. But as a political animal, a disciplined messenger and savvy tactician, Gardner wants to make clear that he will do everything he can to defeat the likes of Claire McCaskill and Tammy Baldwin come November.
“He’s doing it his own way, the Cory way,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “He’s been strong on immigration and stands up to the Roy Moores of the world. That’s the kind of person we need leading the Republican Party.”
Immediately after the election, Bennet warned Gardner of the challenge he would face trying to pick up seats in the Trump era, just as Bennet struggled to defend Democrats under President Barack Obama. But the two have an unusually close bond as pragmatic-minded younger senators. Gardner spent long hours with Democrats like Bennet trying to hammer out an immigration compromise, as hard-liners at the White House privately fumed that he was undercutting GOP unity behind the president’s plan.
Gardner ended up supporting Trump’s proposal as well the bipartisan amendment crafted by moderates — proof, Gardner said, that he's "committed to a solution" in his increasingly diverse state.
It earned him respect from Democratic Party elders that Gardner can cite when he finds his name next to Trump’s on the ballot in 2020 in a state Clinton won.
“When Michael Bennet brought Cory in the room, I thought that was perfect,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) “A Democrat and a Republican in the same room, trying to solve a problem that’s important to this country.”