Shared from the 2/28/2020 The Denver Post eEdition

Why a Sanders nomination might be good for Gardner

Republican would be able to portray Democrats as the party of radical socialists

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President Donald Trump brings U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado to the stage as he speaks to supporters at the Broadmoor World Arena on Feb. 20 in Colorado Springs. AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

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Sen. Bernie Sanders

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Supporters hold signs and cheer during a Bernie Sanders rally at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on Feb. 16. Rachel Woolf, Special to The Denver Post

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who was elected in 2014 in part because of a Democratic president’s midterm unpopularity, hopes Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders for president this year, believing the democratic socialist’s presence at the top of ballots would give Gardner a higher chance of political survival.

The Yuma Republican faces the fight of his political career, an eight-month campaign for re-election in an increasingly Democratic Colorado. So far, he has leaned heavily on an anti-socialism message that is lining up neatly with Sanders’ success in early Democratic contests.

“In 2018, Cory said ‘the most dangerous thing to happen in America in the 2016 presidential election was Bernie Sanders’ normalization of socialism,’ ” said Gardner’s campaign spokesman, Jerrod Dobkin. “Two years later, Cory’s been proven right — (John) Hickenlooper and the rest of Cory’s far-left Senate challengers will support Bernie as their party’s nominee and his radical socialist agenda.”

In speeches dating back years, Gardner has singled out Sanders for criticism and claimed he was the face of the Democratic Party before that was true. If Sanders is the Democratic nominee, he will be the face of the party this year and the most liberal presidential nominee in at least a generation. What that means for Democrats down the November ballot is a source of great speculation within Colorado politics.

“Republicans know firsthand the power of a populist president, and they observe the excitement that Bernie generates,” said Diana Bray, a Democratic challenger to Gardner and a Sanders supporter, who believes Republicans are fearful of a Sanders nomination and engaging in reverse psychology.

“The Republicans eat distress, hysteria and division for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and this strategy feeds straight into their messaging that Trump can beat Sanders,” she added. “I don’t believe he can, and I don’t believe he would have (in 2016). And I don’t believe he will.”

The Sanders campaign, pointing to large Colorado rallies Sanders hosted in 2018, 2019 and 2020, says he spurs unparalleled enthusiasm and brings new voters into the Democratic Party, which will help all Democrats on the November ballot. Gov. Jared Polis, who rallied with Sanders during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, would not have done so if it would have hurt his chances, the Sanders campaign said.

Just as Gardner has faced years of tough questions about tweets, quotes and actions by President Donald Trump, he and his allies expect the Democrat facing Gardner this fall will face questions about Sanders.

“A Sanders candidacy turns the national race away from a referendum election on Trump to a factional candidate in Sanders persuading the electorate of his viability and vision, which is a dynamic that Gardner can exploit,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University.

Ten Democrats are campaigning with the hope of facing Gardner in November, and many support at least a portion of Sanders’ progressive platform. But the field is led by Hickenlooper, the most moderate candidate and one who spent much of his presidential run denouncing Sanders’ ideas as Marxist and damaging for Democrats. However, he has vowed to support whomever the nominee is.

Hickenlooper, asked by reporters Feb. 19 whether a Sanders victory in the Democratic primary would harm his chances of beating Gardner, said: “I don’t worry about that, and I don’t think so.”

Saunders believes Hickenlooper’s high name recognition and popularity still give him the edge over Gardner, at least for now.

“However, a lot can change in eight months, which is an eternity in politics,” the professor added.

Before Sanders’ success in the first Democratic contests propelled him to front-runner status, Gardner claimed the Vermont senator was a standard-bearer of the Democratic Party. At the Western Conservative Summit last July, Gardner said Sanders had completed a “successful, hostile takeover of the Democratic Party.”

The 19-minute speech, which contained two dozen mentions of socialism, singled out only one person for criticism: Sanders. When Gardner spoke on a stage with Trump in Colorado Springs last week, he again criticized only one person by name: Sanders. One of Gardner’s few ads this election cycle focused on the Green New Deal, Sanders’ signature environmental policy.

Michael Fields, director of Colorado Rising Action, a conservative group that tracks Democratic challengers to Gardner, anticipates that Democrats will have to answer constantly for Sanders’ ideas if he’s the nominee.

“It just changes the discussion more than it changes our tactics,” Fields said.

Across the country, Senate Republicans in tough re-election races are painting their moderate Democratic opponents as the 51st votes for Sanders’ socialist ideas. Kick us out of office, GOP incumbents warn, and you will dramatically reshape America’s economy, its health care system and its society for the worse.

And it’s not only Republicans. This week, Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign handed surrogates, including those in Colorado, an internal polling memo that claims Sanders will hurt Democrats in tight congressional races, as Colorado Politics first reported. Thirty-nine percent of respondents in the poll said they will be less likely to vote for a Democratic congressional candidate if Sanders is the nominee “and his socialist ideas are in the Democratic Party platform.”

Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Colorado pollster and political consultant, wrote last week that if Sanders is successful, the Democratic challenger to Gardner will “have to run with the most vulnerable Democratic nominee since George McGovern in 1972,” to Gardner’s benefit.

But such predictions are far from foolproof. Democrats routinely believed Trump was the weakest possible Republican candidate in 2016, until he won. In October of that year, Democrats linked many GOP candidates to Trump but gained only six seats in the House and two in the Senate.

“I’m reminded of when the Democrats back in 1980 were all pulling for Ronald Reagan to be the nominee because they thought he’d be the easiest to beat,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday, saying it “may be a bit foolish” to assume Sanders is the easiest Democrat to defeat.

Democrats in the Colorado congressional delegation are not running away from Sanders. Rep. Jason Crow, a moderate Democrat from Aurora who represents the only competitive Democratic district in the state, told reporters Monday that he will support the Democratic nominee for president, regardless of who it is, and he doesn’t worry that Sanders will hurt Democrats.

“I have policy differences with all of them in one way or another,” Crow said after a town hall in Aurora. “Nobody has a perfect candidate that you agree with all of the time. But what I can say is, none of those candidates pose the threats to our democracy that President Trump poses, by any stretch.”

Justin Wingerter: jwingerter@denverpost.com or @JustinWingerter

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