Is Cory Gardner’s nice-guy persona enough to win in Colorado?

Meredith Shiner
Political correspondent
U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, center right, who is running for the U.S. Senate, talks with supporter Don Trujillo during a meeting and a press conference with state Republican Hispanics, at a Mexican restaurant in Aurora, Colo., on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

DENVER — People who meet Cory Gardner seem to like him. Like, really like him.

This is fascinating to observe on the ground, given the widespread dislike that voters have for current members of Congress, where the Republican Gardner is in his second term in the House. Gallup polling in September showed Congress with an approval rating of 14 percent, which is on pace to be the lowest it’s been in a midterm election year since the firm’s tracking began in 1974.

But Gardner manages to come across as different from the dislikable pack: the consummate guy-next-door, you’d-have-a-beer-with-him politician. A photogenic 40-year-old with two young kids, Gardner approaches every volunteer at a meet-and-greet here in suburban Denver with a smile and a backslap and the enthusiastic air of someone who treats every stranger as a friend. The Denver Post endorsed the him last week in the state's U.S. Senate contest, in large part because he is running a positive campaign based on personal attributes, and his opponent, Democratic incumbent Mark Udall, is not. Udall is running a race so negative that at a debate in Denver last week, a Denver Post political reporter referred to him as “Mark Uterus” because so many of his ads target Gardner’s opposition to abortion.

Back in February, top GOP aides in D.C. were nothing short of giddy when Gardner opted to drop his House re-election bid and run for the Senate, switching races with ultraconservative Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who dropped his second Senate bid to run for Gardner’s House seat. From the coffee shops off Capitol Hill to an Applebee's in Kentucky, a consensus among Republican political operatives began to emerge: The gregarious, hard-working Gardner, who like them was once a Senate aide and a D.C.-based communications staffer, was the dark-horse pick of the cycle.

“I think there’s a likability about him,” the Senate’s No. 3 Republican in seniority, John Thune of South Dakota, told Yahoo News at the Gardner volunteer event in Greenwood Village, a Denver suburb. “He’s got a record, obviously, as a member of Congress ... but I think that style and tone matter. And I think the way you communicate, whether you have a winsome way, [matters]. Cory is the kind of candidate that wants to appeal to people’s hopes rather than prey on their fears, and I think in politics, people are looking for that kind of candidate.”

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., right, speaks during a debate with U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., in Denver, on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The two are locked in what many polls report is a tight race, less than one month before election day on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

For weeks, public polling has shown the race between Gardner and Udall to be within the margin of error. And in this final month of the campaign, Democrats plan to use $15 million on a bulked-up field operation modeled on the successful 2010 organization of now-Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet, also of Colorado. A Democratic source in the state said that while Bennet’s campaign had 50 paid field organizers covering the Centennial State in 2010, the Udall team is now employing 100.

For Democrats to have deployed those kinds of resources in Colorado against tea party-favorite Buck, who lost his first Senate bid in 2010, would have been unthinkable.

And yet, as much as Gardner’s entry into the race looked like the fulfillment of a Republican Party dream, it could end up being the party’s nightmare if he loses.

Because if Cory Gardner can’t win in Colorado, what Republican can?

It’s a question that’s about more than just one candidate and one state — it’s about the future of a Republican Party that for the past decade has been pulled increasingly to the right, making truly purple states like Colorado appear blue by default. As much as the Beltway pundit class talks about President Obama being a drag on down-ballot Democrats nationwide, it’s the Republican Party brand that could bring down Gardner in Colorado. And if Republicans miss taking back control of the Senate for the third consecutive time because they can’t win in a state like Colorado in an off-year election under a president whose popularity has tanked, it won’t be because Todd Akin moments — viral gaffes from hyperconservative candidates on topics like rape and abortion — took them down. It will be because average, independent voters have come to believe that the GOP is the party of Todd Akins.

* * *

“The dentist leans over to me, ‘Why won’t they stop talking about personhood?’” political columnist for the Colorado Independent Mike Littwin said of a recent trip for teeth cleaning.

That’s a good question.

To turn on a TV in Colorado is to see Democratic-backed attack ads on Gardner’s sponsorship at the federal level of personhood legislation — bills defining life as beginning at conception in order to outlaw all abortions — and previous support of multiple Colorado-based efforts to amend the state constitution to extend “inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law” to the unborn.

In 2010, Colorado Initiative 62, a ballot initiative that would have amended the Colorado constitution with a personhood measure outlawing abortion, was resoundingly defeated, with more than 70 percent of voters opposing it. It was the second time that Colorado voters rejected the measure; 73 percent voted against it in 2008.

U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., (right) questions Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (left) as she turns around to her aides during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing about the troubled launch of the website on Oct. 30, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The issue is on the ballot a third time this year as Amendment 67. Udall and his Democratic allies have spent millions of dollars tying Gardner to the issue in a bid to turn out women voters, but some in Colorado, including Udall allies and opponents, are wondering if the singular focus on personhood is keeping the Democrat from waging a broader campaign. In 2008, Udall touted his willingness to work with Republicans — “I’ve never believed all ideas that come from Republicans are automatically bad or that all ideas that come from Democrats are automatically good,” he said in an ad then — and ran a positive campaign that looks more like Gardner’s 2014 bid than the Democrat’s own.

The constant stream of personhood ads from Democrats, which began with an April TV spot from Udall’s campaign, is part of a strategy to focus specifically on turning out the Democratic base. It seems to be working, sort of: A Denver Post poll released this week  showed Udall down by two points, but up seven points with women overall and 12 points among women between the ages of 18 and 34.

“Women don’t see the issue of reproductive freedom as existing in a vacuum, and women consistently rate economic security as their No. 1 issue in this campaign, and that includes the freedom of the decision of when to become a mother,” said Jess McIntosh, communications director for Emily’s List.

Still, Udall’s approach is decidedly retro-2012. Women’s issues were a prominent theme that year because of the presidential contest and Republicans across the country who inflamed female voters with comments on abortion and rape that helped quash GOP hopes of retaking the Senate.

When Udall got an opportunity to directly question Gardner in the Denver Post debate last week, he went straight to the personhood issue, even though the moderators had asked similar questions at the top of the forum.

As the race between Udall and Gardner tightens, political operatives and observers of Colorado politics wonder if the attention to the personhood issue has come at the expense of tying Gardner to an unpopular national Republican party that, since last election, shut down the government over defunding Obama's health-care law and blocked a vote on comprehensive immigration reform. The immigration issue is especially relevant, given that Udall will need to turn out Hispanic voters — another core constituency — to win.

“The Democrats have only wanted to talk about one issue in the campaign, and I think they've suffered from that,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist whose firm, On Message Inc., is working the GOP side of the Colorado contest. “Cory is running a much more comprehensive campaign about a lot of the problems people face — the cost of energy, the cost of healthcare.”

* * *

Twelve percent of registered Colorado voters are Hispanic, and Doug Rivers, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and political science professor at Stanford, said that the most recent polling done by his organization, based on previous voting records, Census data and surveys, suggests that approximately 11 percent of Colorado voters in 2014 will be Hispanic.

On the day of the Denver Post debate, Udall did two brief events in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood in Denver on Santa Fe Drive, touring the Su Teatro Culture and Performing Arts Center and then lunching with Hispanic leaders and business owners across the street at El Noa Noa.

Senatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., (left) gestures during a debate with incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., in Denver, on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The two are locked in what many polls report is a tight race, less than one month before election day on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The conversations Udall had here, with a relatively easy focus on a broad range of issues affecting Hispanic voters, did not match the overwhelming message that Democrats have put on television or his focus in the debate on personhood. Moreover, there was one somewhat uncomfortable exchange that underscored the fatigue created by the overwhelmingly negative campaign, even in key demographics Udall needs most.

At the lunch, Jesse Ogas, a 55-year old actor at Su Teatro and vice president of social responsibility at a Denver-based charity, noted that some in the Hispanic community have been turned off by the negative tone of the Senate campaign and asked the senator whether he regretted not pledging to run a positive campaign, like embattled incumbent Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has.

In response, Udall said his ads were aimed to draw a “contrast” between his voting record and Gardner’s and tried to tie the personhood issue to both economic issues and issues important to the Hispanic community.

Before lunch, Ogas described himself as an “avid supporter” of Udall and decried Republican positions on immigration and the child migrant crisis. But he also said he and his fellow community leaders are worried that the urgency of this election is not being conveyed.

“Especially from the community as a whole, I don’t think we did a very good job in getting the message out as to what the senator has done politically — within the community — and I think what you’ve seen is, for us to be in the position where we have a contender like Cory Gardner giving him a run for his money is worrisome on many levels,” Ogas said. “If this community gets out and votes, it’s a shoo-in, he has no worry. It’s a matter of educating the community that it’s their responsibility, they have to get out, they have to vote, they have to express their voice.”

House Republicans have yet to vote on immigration reform, and that could hurt candidates like Gardner in states like Colorado — something the candidate himself seems to recognize.

“We must pursue immigration reform — it’s something we have to do, something that starts with border security,” Gardner told Yahoo News in a wide-ranging September interview in Washington.

Ryan Call, Colorado's GOP state party chair, told Yahoo News that the party is trying to be more responsive to Latino voters, hiring three full-time outreach employees and amending the state party platform to include support for comprehensive immigration reform.

But that might not be enough if Republican leaders in Washington won’t budge on the issue.

* * *

Perhaps one of the most significant reasons Republican operatives and leaders love Gardner is that he is disciplined. Over the past two elections, undisciplined candidates — from Akin to Indiana’s Richard Mourdock in 2010 to Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Buck in Colorado in 2010 — who made off-the-cuff statements and didn't adhere to the establishment’s rules of the game helped tank GOP dreams of winning the Senate majority.

Gardner will wake up in Colorado on Mountain Time and begin his call time with donors from the East Coast to the West Coast, knowing that he can knock out calls to New York or D.C. before most people around him are even past their morning coffee. Gardner’s campaign raised $4.35 million last quarter alone, enabling the Republican to buy an addition $750,000 in television ad time this month.

Republican political aides privately have been touting his routine for months, but when asked about it Gardner is mostly coy.

“It’s just — you’re on the ball, you’re calling people, you’re working hard, you’re talking to people about the race and letting them know your thoughts, your concerns, that you’re seeing and feeling the same things that they’re feeling every day,” Gardner said, before looking at two communications staffers.

“These guys probably get mad at me because I’m a voracious reader, and so every tidbit of news, I will find it. It’s funny because I think they get mad at me because I’m sending them the clips before they send the clips to me,” Gardner said of the campaign practice of staffers sending relevant news stories to their bosses. “When I get sent the clips, I’m like, read that, read that, read that, there’s nothing new here.”

Gardner’s work ethic and “likability” are constantly mentioned on by his supporters.

Their descriptions of Gardner’s candidacy are saccharine-sweet. “People relate to him. He works his tail off. He never gets down, and I think that inspires a lot of people to work hard for him on the ground,” said Todd, the consultant whose firm has received more than $665,000 from Gardner’s campaign. Thune, who has been barnstorming the country for other Senate Republican hopefuls, sounded the same notes: “Cory has got a very likable demeanor, and I think he’s got a very likable and upbeat approach, and whenever you see him in action, I think people just like him.”

It remains to be seen whether charm can outweigh a voting history in Congress that largely aligns with the Republican Party’s conservative mainstream. Gardner was ranked the 10th most conservative member of the House in 2012 by the National Journal.

U.S. Rep.-elect Cory Gardner, R-Colo., celebrates after he drew number one during an office selection lottery for new House of Representatives members on Nov. 19, 2010, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

He has voted against raising the debt ceiling, most recently last February. And while he has moved a bit more to the center in recent years — he went from voting 95 percent of the time with the conservative Heritage Action in 2011 to 67 percent in 2014 — his voting record still leans decidedly to the right.

Call, the Colorado party chair, dubbed Gardner “the kind of candidate for the future.”

Thune, who has a significant role in Senate Republican leadership and recruiting efforts — and has flirted with national election bids himself — agrees. “A lot of people are going to be looking at Colorado and saying, 'OK, how can we use that as a model, how can we imitate that in other places?' and part of that will come down to recruiting Cory Gardner-type quality candidates,” he said. “And looking at the mechanics of operationally how they conduct a campaign out here.”

With all that hope on the Republican side, however, they’ve set themselves up even more seriously with the potential to be disappointed. If a win in Colorado would make Gardner a model, a loss would only raise more questions about the national brand and the policy positions the party has taken in Washington. Recruiting able and affable candidates will only go so far if voters don’t believe that the party those candidates represent will serve their interests if it is elected.

“Republicans are in a terrible situation if they can’t win with their very best candidate in an off-year election when there’s going to be a Republican wave and when Democrats have done a terrible job explaining what a Republican-controlled Senate would look like,” said Littwin, the political columnist for the Colorado Independent.

If you take his voting record and his personality, he’s the perfect Republican candidate. That’s, on one hand, a great opportunity, but also scary for Republicans,” Littwin continued. “If he can’t win, they’re done. They’re done in Colorado. And if they’re done in Colorado, where does this put them everywhere else? You’ve got to have significant number of battlegrounds to even have a hope for winning.”

With a 2016 presidential election on the horizon, all eyes — but especially Republican ones — are on Colorado, and hoping Gardner can outwork and outcharm Democrats there. Because if he can't, it’s possible that no one else can.