In terms of presidential politics, Colorado has lost a bit of its luster as a battleground state. That's not the case if you look at the contested race for the Senate. The winner of the contest between incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and his Democratic challenger, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, will most likely be the lynchpin for whoever gets control of the chamber.
You've seen the almost inescapable TV political ads between the two, now you can get the backstory.
Gardner has made his legislative record, and his willingness to work with Democrats, a centerpiece of his argument for why increasingly-blue Colorado should retain him as its senator.
“I cross party lines to get things done. That’s what I like to do and it works,” Gardner says in one ad. Another touts a specific milestone: “Nine Gardner bills enacted into law. More than the rest of our delegation combined.”
If you look at stand-alone bills, Gardner has had more enacted into law than the rest of the delegation combined, a record he’s plugged frequently on the campaign trail. The number is actually 10 now, with the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act this summer. Some were uncontroversial bills to name a post office or VA clinic, while a handful stem from his work on the Foreign Relations Committee.
- Great American Outdoors Act (2020) - Permanently and fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and directs $1.9 billion a year toward national park maintenance for five years.
- TAIPEI Act (2019) - requires the State Department to report regularly to Congress on efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s international relationships.
- Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (2018) - lays out diplomatic priorities in the Indo-Pacific region and appropriates $1.8 billion annually through 2023 to achieve them.
- George Sakato Post Office Designation (2018) - named post office near the National Western Complex for a former postal service employee.
- Power and Security Systems (PASS) Act (2017) - requires the Department of Energy to decide whether and how to update energy conservation standards for external power supplies.
- PFC James Dunn VA Clinic designation in Pueblo (2016) - named the clinic for a Colorado veteran of World War Two who received the Navy Cross for valor.
- American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (2016) - updates the mission and organization of the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology, with a greater focus on cybersecurity.
- Aurora VA Medical Center Construction Continuation (2015) - Reauthorized funding to continue building the new Veterans Administration hospital in Aurora.
- Taiwan Observer Status - International Criminal Police Organization (2015) - Directed the State Department to work on helping Taiwan gain observer status at INTERPOL.
- North Korea Sanctions Policy and Enhancement Act (2015) - imposes sanctions on any individual who aids North Korea’s military efforts or human rights abuses.
And Gardner could be on his way to an 11th; his 988 suicide hotline bill is on the president’s desk.
“One does need some skills and professional relationships to pass bills,” said Seth Masket, professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
Gardner knows how to write and move legislation. He’s done it most of his career, from general counsel and legislative director for then Sen. Wayne Allard, to his time in the Colorado House of Representatives, to the U.S. House of Representatives and now to the Senate.
And he does know how to reach across the aisle to work on bills.
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In 2019, the Luger Center ranked Gardner the third most bipartisan senator. This is also something you hear a lot from Gardner in ads, the debates and on the campaign trail. The Luger Center derives the ranking based on the number of bills a lawmaker sponsors or co-sponsors with someone on the other side of the aisle. Gardner has climbed the ranking over the course of his Senate term. In the 114th Congress, which covered Gardner’s first two years, he was ranked 36th. In the 115th Congress, he was ranked fifth.
That bipartisanship isn’t necessarily reflected in Gardner’s voting record.
According to FiveThirtyEight, over the course of the Trump administration, Gardner has voted in line with the president 89.1 percent of the time. Based on how Trump did in Colorado in 2016, the site predicted Gardner’s voting score should be 41.5 percent. That’s a difference of 47.6 percent. For some context, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet has voted with Trump 27.8 percent of the time, with a predicted score of 42.5 percent. That’s a difference of 14.7 percent. (For some reelection context, the other Republican senator running for reelection in a state that Trump lost in 2016 is Susan Collins of Maine. She’s voted in line with the president 67.5 percent of the time.)
This shouldn’t be too surprising though. Gardner has been in party leadership, leading the Republican senatorial campaign arm last cycle and as part of the whip team in 116th Congress.
Masket also notes “the number of bills passed depends a great deal on whether one is part of the majority party or not.” Gardner has been in the majority his entire tenure in the Senate, which has helped him get his bills to the floor. His election was part of the 2014 red wave that flipped control of the Senate from Democrats to Republicans. The only other members of the delegation that can claim the distinction of only serving in the majority of their chambers are freshmen Reps. Jason Crow and Joe Neguse, both elected in 2018’s blue wave.
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Additionally, many of the bills members of the delegation sponsor do not make it to the finish line as stand-alone measures; rather they are incorporated into larger bills or packages or offered as amendments. For example, the bill that would reform the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, known as the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act sponsored by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), includes legislation for a blue-ribbon commission sponsored by Gardner and fellow Coloradan, Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette.
If you look at legislative accomplishments in that light, the rest of the delegation's numbers would shoot up, as would Gardner’s. The junior senator would still be in the lead, though, with the number of sponsored bills signed into law over the last six years, according to the govtrack website. But his total would be less than the entire delegation combined.
But will his claim sway voters?
“Cory Gardner has been regarded in the Senate as a very effective, well-liked senator,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report. “[But] this is a race that has not become about his accomplishments or what he has done... it has become incredibly nationalized...especially when you have a president like Trump that just overpowers everything.”