John Hickenlooper conveniently beats Cory Gardner in Colorados U.S. Senate race


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Riding a wave of opposition to President Donald Trump, former Gov. John Hickenlooper defeated Republican incumbent Cory Gardner in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race.

The Democratic victory Tuesday put the party in position to take control of the U.S. Senate, but the balance of power still hinges on races in other key battleground states.

Gardner conceded before 8 p.m. The Associated Press declared Hickenlooper the winner at 7:42 p.m., just after Gardner began speaking.

“Please understand, to all the people who supported our efforts tonight, that (Hickenlooper’s) success is Colorado’s success, and our nation and our state need him to succeed,” Gardner said in his concession speech. “We need to be united together.”

In the speech — broadcast on his campaign website — Gardner returned to a familiar refrain from the campaign trail and listed off his legislative accomplishments, touting his ability to deliver money for major projects in Colorado and supplies to battle the coronavirus.


Hickenlooper spoke to his supporters on Facebook Live just after 8 p.m. He said it’s “time for a different approach” in the Senate.

“We’ve got to get Washington working for everyone,” he said. “Regardless of which party ends up controlling the Senate, I want you to know I will work with anyone and everyone to help Coloradans.”

Hickenlooper also thanked Gardner for his service.

“I want to say to everyone who voted for him: I’ll be your senator, as well,” Hickenlooper said.

As of 8:20 p.m., Hickenlooper was leading Gardner with 55% of the vote to Gardner’s 43%.

Hickenlooper’s win gives Democrats both U.S. Senate seats in Colorado and the party universal control on the state’s levers of power for the first time since 1936.

Earlier in the day, as he rallied supporters, Hickenlooper criticized Gardner and the Republican-led Senate for pushing through a late-season Supreme Court nominee but not spending time to find a compromise with Democrats on additional coronavirus aid or climate change legislation.

“Cory Gardner has failed to do his job, but if we do ours … we’ll show him the door, we’ll take back the Senate and we’ll be able to make progress on these critical issues and so much more,” he said.

From the start, Gardner’s close ties to Trump — who lost in Colorado for the second time — doomed his campaign, one made even more difficult by the state’s demographic shift toward Democrats since he took office

MORE: Joe Biden wins in Colorado, easily defeating President Donald Trump to take the state’s 9 electoral votes

Gardner’s defeat is the first in his 15-year tenure in public office, dating back to the state legislature and U.S. House. He won a surprise upset against Democratic incumbent Mark Udall in 2014, promising Colorado voters that “when my party’s wrong, I’ll say it.” 

But he put little distance between himself and a president that he once called a “buffoon” and refused to support in 2016. But Trump’s transformation of the Republican Party left him little room to maneuver as the state shifted blue, and he endorsed the president in January 2019.

His support for the president helped allow him to pass major legislation, including the Great American Outdoors Act and a bill creating a national suicide hotline. Gardner also voted to confirm three conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court, including Colorado’s Neil Gorsuch.

But those same ties to the president also led to Gardner’s undoing. Hickenlooper and Democratic allies used Gardner’s conservative record to escalate a years-long campaign to erode his support.

U.S. Cory Gardner arrives at a get-out-the-vote-rally at the Grand Junction Motor Speedway in Grand Junction, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Hickenlooper linked Gardner to Trump at every turn and blasted the White House response to the coronavirus crisis as he pushed a message of change and the need for compromise in Washington. He managed to defeat a challenge from his left in the Democratic Party primary earlier this year and ran a low-profile campaign during which he avoided tough questions and missteps that could have derailed his momentum.

The Democratic cavalry rallied to Hickenlooper’s side. He broke Colorado fundraising records with nearly $40 million collected through Oct. 14, compared with Gardner’s nearly $27 million. And Democrats groups spent $15 million and used about $10.5 million on negative ads against Gardner.

Outside Republican political groups worked to even the score, pouring nearly $21 million into the contest. The bulk of the money — $18 million — went toward attacks on Hickenlooper that focused on his two violations of the state’s ethics laws earlier this year.

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Democratic groups spent $15 million and used about $10.5 million on negative ads against Gardner. The attacks worked to erode Hickenlooper’s image but didn’t shift the race. 

The attacks never really stuck because of his popularity leading Colorado, said former Gov. Bill Ritter, Hickenlooper’s predecessor. “Even though this campaign has sullied some things about that, he was still very well liked by Coloradans when he left office — and it wasn’t that long ago,” Ritter said.

Gardner’s loss is a huge blow for Colorado Republican Party 

Gardner’s loss is the latest in a series of stinging defeats for the Colorado GOP at the top of the ticket over the past two election cycles.

For years, Gardner was considered one of the state’s most talented Republican politicians, even if he took flak from hardcore conservatives for not being more vocal about his support for the president.

“It hurts,” Tyler Sandberg, a Republican consultant in Colorado, said of the loss. “In 2014, Cory charted a path out of the wilderness for Republicans on a statewide basis after a string of losses going back to 2006. He showed that it was possible to win statewide with an optimistic message and the willingness to put in the hard work.”

Gardner’s defeat means there’s only one Republican left in a statewide elected office in Colorado: University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl.

Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Democratic ally of Hickenlooper’s who also served in the Senate, attributed Gardner’s loss to the Republican losing his way.

“Cory made the decision to embrace the politics and the pressures of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell in the U.S. Senate, as opposed to forging his own independent way representing the people of the state of Colorado,” Salazar said. 

Gardner’s campaign knew going into the 2020 election season that the president’s unpopularity in Colorado would make it a tough battle.

Congressman Scott Tipton, left, looks on as President Donald Trump greets Sen. Cory Gardner during a campaign rally at the World Arena in Colorado Springs Thursday, February 20, 2020. Photo by Mark Reis

Likewise, Gardner’s approval rating this year never hit positive territory and his disapproval numbers averaged 12 percentage points higher. The landscape meant the senator’s best chance for reelection was to eke out a victory by holding the Republican base intact and persuading enough unaffiliated voters in the middle to give him another term. 

To walk that fine line, Gardner touted his congressional record to Colorado voters, namely through the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which provides money for public lands projects and dollars for National Parks repairs. 

Gardner’s campaign believed the race was beginning to tighten heading into September — which was confirmed by public polling — and the candidate was hopeful to move to within striking distance in the weeks before Election Day. 

That all changed when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in mid September. The prospect of a strong conservative majority court energized Democrats and boosted his fundraising and poll margins, putting the race out of reach for Republicans. 

In the end, Gardner’s strategy never permanently moved the needle. 

Claire Roberts, a 38-year-old Denver Democrat, voted for Hickenlooper on Tuesday largely because she thinks Gardner is “a Trump puppet.” She said she especially disapproved of Gardner’s recent vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hickenlooper’s campaign expected Gardner to sell more of his record, but the Republican stayed focused on his public lands work. 

“I don’t think he ran a good campaign,” said Alvina Vasquez, a Democratic consultant who ran a dark-money group against Gardner this cycle. “Cory Gardner voters are Trump voters, but he didn’t draw anybody new in.”

Hickenlooper, for his part, ran into some trouble during the Democratic primary against former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. But, in the end, he was able to glide toward his party’s nomination. 

John Hickenlooper as a U.S. Senate debate with Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner at the Denver7 studio in Denver, Colorado on Friday, October 9, 2020. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

From there, Hickenlooper spent the general election talking about his platform and tearing down Gardner’s record, especially on health care. Because of the coronavirus crisis, his public schedule was limited. 

During three debates with Gardner, Hickenlooper was able to dodge the incumbent’s relentless punches and stay on his feet. 

In the final weeks of the race, all Hickenlooper had to do was stay the course.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Staff writers Jennifer Brown and Erica Breunlin and Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

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