For an exception to the rule that it doesn’t pay for a congressional Republican on the rise to cross President Donald Trump, the curious case of Cory Gardner may provide the current best example.
He’s in the tiny clutch of GOP lawmakers who have not only opposed the president’s policies, on issues from immigration to marijuana, but also have called him out for his rhetoric, especially on race.
There are a couple of solid reasons why Colorado’s junior senator should not be anywhere near such a place, which has brought him new prominence this winter.
For one, as chairman of the Senate Republican campaign organization for 2018, he’s the newest member of a tight-knit majority leadership team that’s spent the past year focused on looking loyal and patient in the face of Trump’s combustible approach to political relationships and his voluble pursuit of a legislative program.
For another, his own first term doesn’t end until 2020, so he’s got the luxury of waiting a while before determining if unequivocal presidential fealty is in his own best electoral interest. Each time he crosses the president only fuels agitation inside Trump’s loyal base, boosting the odds a primary challenger will have plenty of time to get fueled with combustible conservative anger.
And yet, there are several other reasons why it makes sense that Gardner has been as oppositional toward the president as any Republican who’s not been liberated by impending Senate retirement or grave illness to speak his mind without fear of constituent punishment.
For starters, he is one of just three Republican senators from states Hillary Clinton carried, making occasional feints toward the middle a matter of obvious political common sense for someone who’s going to be campaigning for a second term at the same time as the president.
In addition, high-energy optimism and independence are at the core of Gardner’s political brand, so calling out the president’s darker behavior may serve to polish that image.
“He won by calling himself ‘a new kind of Republican,’ and so be it if that means being outspoken when he disagrees with the president,” said Steve Gordon, a veteran GOP operative who worked on Gardner’s 2014 campaign. “That’s just who he is, and fortunately for him it’s also good politics at home.”
Watch: Your Guide to the 2018 Midterms
The son of a farm implement dealer, Gardner kept with family tradition and registered as a Democrat at age 18, but switched to the GOP soon after starting at Colorado State. After law school he moved to Washington to be communications director at the National Corn Growers Association and then legislative director for one of his Senate predecessors, Wayne Allard. He left the Hill staff job for an appointment to the state Legislature in 2005, won election to the House in the GOP wave of 2010 and got to the Senate four years later by ousting incumbent Democrat Mark Udall.
Beyond his Senate leadership job, he now sits on four prominent committees: Budget, Commerce, Science and Transportation, Energy and Natural Resources and Foreign Relations, where he chairs the subcommittee that covers North Korea.
Looking strictly at his recent voting record does not reveal Gardner as a centrist or partisan iconoclast. Ten GOP senators have voted against Trump’s express wishes more often than Gardner has, which is just twice on 125 roll calls since this administration began. And eight of his colleagues have broken from the Republican ranks more often (he’s done so five times) during votes in the past year that have fallen mainly along party lines.
But the senator has been crosswise with the White House on at least four high-profile matters.
Immigration is the area of most consequential disagreement to date. Gardner was in the bipartisan group of six senators who struck a deal they believed the president would embrace, and Trump’s rejection of it with vulgar vehemence instead was what hastened this month’s partial government shutdown.
Gardner also was in the bipartisan group of about 20 senators who brokered the truce that led to federal agencies reopening after three days. And now he is part of a bigger group of about a dozen senators looking to write bipartisan legislation that can move through the Senate and thereby ward off another shutdown showdown.
“I don’t believe anybody is going to be deported,” he said on an ABC News podcast last week. “I believe there are good-faith people on both sides of the aisle who are going to get this done.”
The core aim is to enshrine in law the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects from deportation young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — but which Trump announced he would end by March. In return for supporting its preservation, Trump wants a binding legislative endorsement of his signature border wall, new curbs on the State Department’s diversity visa lottery program and restrictions on the government’s family-based immigration preferences.
The second-youngest current senator at 43, the other way Gardner has been in the headlines this year has been through his powerful protestations in defense of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana for recreational use. He is vowing to block the confirmation of anyone up for a Justice Department position so long as Attorney General Jeff Sessions sticks with his decision to reverse Obama administration policy and begin enforcing federal anti-drug-trafficking laws against pot businesses in states where weed has been legalized.
Gardner personally opposed legalization but views it as a state’s rights issue. And besides, as he said in a heated speech on the Senate floor in early January, he’s furious at what he sees as an abandonment of promises Trump made as a candidate and Sessions made as a Cabinet nominee.
Watch: Gardner Rails Against Sessions’ Marijuana Action as States’ Rights Issue
At the end of last year, it was Roy Moore who drove a wedge between Gardner and Trump. Extensive allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls did not dissuade the president from endorsing the Alabama Senate candidate, which then prompted the Republican National Committee to put money in the race. Gardner went the other direction, not only insisting as chairman that the National Republican Senatorial Committee steer clear of the contest but calling for Moore’s immediate expulsion had he won the special election.
Finally, Gardner was among the earliest and sharpest Republican critics of Trump for suggesting a false moral equivalency between the counter-protesters and the neo-Nazis and other white nationalists who clashed violently in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” the senator tweeted after Trump’s remarks.
Two of the Senate’s most prominent Trump critics, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Tennessee’s Bob Corker, are retiring at the end of the year, while a third, John McCain of Arizona, is confronting terminal brain cancer, and a fourth, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, has been leavening his antagonism with at least as much friendliness of late.
All of which leaves Gardner with a prime opportunity to claim an even more prominent role as Trump scold and policy skeptic.
Taking that on means staking his future — as both inside Hill player and “red” politician in a “bluish purple” state — on joining the rarefied ranks of lawmakers who break today’s rules of tribal partisan conformity.