WASHINGTON — Rep. Cory Gardner is expected to announce he will challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Udall for his seat setting off a chain reaction in Colorado that has upended a lackluster primary season and electrified the Republican Party.
The news prompted Republican frontrunner Ken Buck to step down from the Senate campaign and announce his intentions to fill the 4th Congressional seat being vacated by Gardner. Reports quickly followed that another Republican favorite, Amy Stephens, would also step aside for Gardner, who is a personal friend.
Several sources confirmed to The Colorado Observer that Gardner would enter the race, which gives Republicans a stronger shot at capturing the seat from Udall.
“Cory is a first-tier candidate who can raise money. He’s someone who’s trying to create private-sector jobs,” said Republican Rep. Scott Tipton. “Until now no one’s been really out front on our side.”
“And he’s someone who didn’t vote for the Affordable Care Act and who’s a member of the president’s party and the polarization,” Tipton said of Udall’s votes for the health-care law in 2009 and 2010.
Neither Gardner nor his staff returned phone calls on Wednesday once reports of the campaign shake-up filtered out from the Denver Post and Greeley Tribune.
News that Gardner changed his mind reinvigorated Colorado Republicans who acknowledged they had been disappointed in the previous crop of cash-strapped Senate candidates. Gardner announced in September that he planned to seek a fourth term in the House and would not seek the party’s nomination for the Senate.
A Republican operative said he was “over the moon” about Gardner’s decision, which gives Republicans a solid shot at winning a top-drawer statewide elective office for the first time since 2002.
Buck told the Greeley Tribune that Gardner is a strong candidate who can beat Udall, and that stepping aside was the best move for the Republican Party.
“I was running against Mark Udall because I think this country needed to change directions, and I still think the country needs to change directions, and I think Cory gives us the best chance to get that done,” Buck said.
Owen Hill, another Republican contender for the seat, blasted Gardner and Buck in a series of Tweets Wednesday night accusing them of forging a “back-room deal.”
“This scheming is exactly what is wrong with the insider GOP leadership in CO, who think they choose who our candidates are, not the people,” Hill said in one Tweet.
“More determined to continue building our genuine grassroots momentum to take back Senate seat for the people of CO – not corrupt insiders,” Hill said in a second Tweet.
Gardner’s decision to enter the GOP field for the U.S. Senate caps a yearlong recruitment effort by national Republicans.
A former aide to retired Sen. Wayne Allard, the 39-year-old Gardner is a genial, energetic, and disciplined lawmaker. He has courted Denver media as well as conservative outlets and has committed few verbal gaffes.
Last spring, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee offered strong financial support to Gardner if he decided to enter the race. A Republican who knew of the NRSCC’s dealings described Gardner as “candidate A, B, and C” for the party.
Udall has already amassed a $4.7 million war chest, far out-raising GOP contenders Buck, who has less than $300,000, Amy Stephens with $48,000 and Owen Hill with just over $200,000.
With nearly $900,000 cash on hand, Gardner has shown he’s a skilled fundraiser, but will need national financial support to challenge Udall in what is expected to be an expensive campaign.
The timeline by which Gardner changed his mind is not clear. A Colorado GOP operative said Obama’s and Udall’s sagging poll numbers encouraged Gardner to enter the race.
Tipton suggested that Colorado Republicans had urged Gardner again to run after Senate Republican hopefuls Amy Stephens and Ken Buck posted low-fundraising totals.
When Tipton last spoke to Gardner Tuesday afternoon on the curb outside Reagan National Airport, Gardner had not made up his mind but said he was leaning towards running for the Republican nomination.
Gardner would not have much time to enter the race. The precinct caucuses for the Colorado Republican Party are set for March 4.
If Gardner wins the Republican Party’s nomination, he would face a battle-tested foe in Udall. The race would also represent a generational contrast between the candidates. Gardner turns 40 in August, Udall turns 64 in July.
The Rothenberg Political Report acknowledged that Gardner would be a more formidable foe against Udall than the previous GOP aspirants. The non-partisan handicapping organization moved the race from “currently safe” for the Democrat to “Democrat favored.”
Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster, suggested Udall would face an uphill battle if Gardner announced a bid.
Tipton struck a more cautious but optimistic note about Gardner’s chances. “This creates a whole new dynamic that Washington had put in the Democratic column once again,” he said.
Leslie Jorgensen in Denver contributed to this report.