WASHINGTON — Rep. Cory Gardner stepped into the office of Rep. Mike Coffman to ask for advice: Should he change his mind and run for the U.S. Senate?
The conversation took place last week after a new private poll was conducted with startling results – the Republican from Yuma was slightly ahead of Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup.
Challenging Udall would be no easy task. It would require taking on an incumbent senator with near-universal name recognition, a hint of glamor, and a significantly large war chest for a state such as Colorado.
But Coffman, the former Colorado Secretary of State and Republican from Aurora, told his friend and colleague to go for it.
So did Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Republican from Colorado Springs. “It’s a risk, but it could pay off pay big time,” Lamborn said in an interview Tuesday.
Colorado Republicans have long recognized Gardner’s ambitions and potential to attain higher office.
Former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams told The Colorado Observer last March that Gardner “has been on a fast track since he’s been elected” to the Fourth Congressional District in 2010.
Other political observers noticed that the 39-year-old congressman has been measuring Udall’s strengths and weaknesses as recently as the State of the Union speech.
Gardner noted that Udall did not stand to applaud with fellow Democrats when President Barack Obama referred to the Affordable Care Act during the Jan. 28 address.
“Udall is freaking out,” Gardner is said to have commented.
As far back as last winter, Gardner entertained the prospect of declaring his candidacy for Udall’s seat. He was the top and only real candidate the National Republican Senatorial Committee recruited, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
But in 2013, Gardner resisted the siren song of the Senate.
Yes, Udall’s approval ratings were low, but his disapproval ratings were too, a Senate Republican aide said. There was no national trend that could wipe out an incumbent in a state where Democrats held both the state house, the governorship, and both U.S. Senate seats.
On May 28, Gardner said he would not run for the U.S. Senate. “I’ve got work to do. I’m not in a hurry to run for another office,” he told the Denver Post.
Yet the idea of challenging Udall was not too far from Gardner’s thoughts. It took greater shape after a series of political events unfolded: the rollout of Obamacare was a disaster; Gardner’s own health-insurance plan was cancelled and he gained notoriety for confronting Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; and Udall’s staff were revealed to have exerted pressure on a Colorado official to alter the number of cancelled health policies as a result of Obamacare.
But a pivotal factor in Gardner’s change of mind was the release of a Quinnipiac University poll of Colorado voters Feb. 6, according to two Republican sources.
The results surprised even seasoned Colorado Republicans. President Obama’s job ratings had fallen to 37 percent approval and 60 percent disapproval. Obamacare’s numbers reflected the same level of unpopularity. Even Democrat Hillary Clinton trailed Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in a hypothetical matchup of presidential aspirants.
Colorado voters had soured on national Democrats.
Two other factors aided Gardner’s candidacy. Historically, the mid-term election in a president’s second term in office is poor for the party in power.
And, Gardner is a noted fundraiser. Last year he was named second-in-command of a House Republican program to steer more money to vulnerable freshmen lawmakers.
A political observer in Colorado noted just days after Gardner formally announced his candidacy on Saturday at a Denver lumberyard that donations had already began to pour into his campaign coffers.
The results of the Quinnipiac poll and the private poll were essential, according to two people familiar with Gardner’s thinking. Less than three weeks later, news that the ambitious but risk-averse Gardner would challenge Udall after all, had leaked to the media.
Gardner delivered the news to rank-and-file House Republicans late last week, not with a boast, but with significant evidence that he could take on a sitting senator and win.
“I’m up, I’m up,” one Republican House member heard him say.