GOP's Supreme Court push may box in Cory Gardner

DENVER (AP) - Six years ago, the Colorado Democrats couldn't convince enough voters to turn down Cory Gardner's Senate bid. Your warnings that the Republican might one day be the affirmative vote for a Supreme Court Justice, the Roe v. Wade could fall proved ineffective.
Now, 46-year-old Gardner is ready to be one of the votes that will bring President Donald Trump's candidate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just before the election. And Democrats believe they have the votes to punish him for it.
Gardner has long been considered both one of the nimble Republican politicians and one of the most vulnerable. His 2014 run was hailed as the best Senate campaign of the year for defusing and updating democratic attacks on his role in a “war against women”. But he's also a Republican in a state that has turned dramatically into Democrats since Trump's election - the president lost the state by 5% in 2016 and then the Democrats won the governorship by 11% in 2018 and every other nationwide race. Gardner had trouble escaping the long shadow of the president.
"Luck and timing are everything in politics, and Cory is at the wrong end of all of those elements," said Mike Stratton, a Democratic strategist who advised Senator Mark Udall, who was ousted by Gardner in 2014.
Gardner is now up against John Hickenlooper, a popular former Colorado governor and mayor of Denver.
Gardner's re-election depends on convincing the crucial segment of the state's independent electorate that he is an impartial problem-solver looking for the state. During the campaign, he emphasized his work on state-centered, undisputed issues - moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management to western Colorado, co-creating a bill to finance maintenance in national parks, and creating a national suicide prevention number.
"I vote 100% of the time for the people of Colorado," Gardner said during a debate on Friday night.
But Gardner was also a reliable voice for his party under Trump. The president praised Gardner for being with him "100% of the time" at a rally in February, and voters received another reminder when Gardner said he supported Barrett's nomination. Republicans recognize that this could be enough to prevent him from escaping Trump's downward pull.
"I am saying a prayer that our president will not carry him away," said Linda Heintz, 71, a registered Republican in suburban Denver who plans to vote for Gardner early. Heintz still hasn't decided if she can vote for Trump, but Gardner was a no-brainer.
"He didn't do anything to not deserve re-election," she said, admitting that she doesn't think many others in the state would agree with her view.
Joan Kresek doesn't. The 65-year-old graphic design professor is an independent democrat who exemplifies Colorado's transformation from a swing state into an increasingly blue bastion.
"Cory Gardner is connected to Trump, who I am 100% against," said Kresek, saying Gardner's support for a swift replacement of the late Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg "is what he stands for."
GOP pollster David Flaherty noted that the Barrett nomination is particularly difficult for Gardner. The independents he has to win are not only impartial, they are also bipartisan and even reject "the impression of party political decisions," he said. Republicans' urge to ratify Barrett ahead of the election when they foiled an attempt by the Democrats to get a less rush ratification four years ago is a tough sell.
Laura Chapin, a Democratic agent focused on abortion rights, noted that Coloradans will also vote on a Conservative-backed election measure that would ban abortion after 22 weeks of gestation. They also face the prospect that Barrett could vote to overturn the court ruling protecting a woman's right to abortion and rule against the Affordable Care Act. In 2014 it was easy for Gardner to dismiss these scenarios as partisan feverish dreams.
"We were dealing with hypotheses," said Chapin. "We are no longer in the range of the hypothesis."
Gardner exemplifies the bond several Republicans found themselves in during the Trump era. In 2016, he reluctantly endorsed Trump only to withdraw his approval after the Access Hollywood tape revealed that Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women.
But when Trump was elected, Gardner tied himself to the president. In 2018, he led the GOP's efforts to win Senate seats and worked to get candidates to advertise their support for the president. He has carefully expressed his displeasure with some of Trump's most controversial statements, such as the statement that there were "good people" on both sides of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville. In Friday's debate, Gardner had no hesitation in condemning the extremist group known as the Proud Boys and white supremacism - two things Trump would not do on the debate stage last week.
But Gardner was generally a steadfast voice for Trump's top priorities, including repealing the Affordable Care Act. He has voted to confirm conservative judges and not to remove the president from office after his impeachment.
Gardner was quick to endorse Trump's re-election in early 2019, and during the rally in late February, Trump returned the favor. "Cory is a champion for the people of Colorado," Trump told a crowded arena in the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs.
Democrats have repeatedly tied this around Gardner's neck. "Cory Gardner stood next to him 100% of the time, supported Donald Trump 100% of the time," Hickenlooper said in a recent debate in which he also repeatedly noted Gardner's support for Barrett's endorsement.
Hickenlooper also repeatedly dismissed Gardner barb attacks as "typical Washington", saying that "new blood" is needed in the capital.
It is an ironic echo of how Gardner won in 2014 when he tied the incumbent Udall to the then unpopular President Barack Obama, presented himself as a fresh face and promised in an ad: “If my party is wrong, I'll say it. ”
Stratton, the Udall strategist, was puzzled by the parallels. "Six years on, Gardner is, to some extent, Udall," he said.
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Washington associate press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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