The Making of a Purple Superhero

In Colorado, Cory Gardner’s forcefield easily deflected Democrats’ attacks. Can other Republicans learn the technique?

U.S. Representative Cory Gardner waits for his chance to rebuttal during a debate Tuesday, October 7, 2014 in the auditorium of The Denver Post in Denver, Colorado. The debate is one of the final meeting of Senator Mark Udall and challenger U.S. Representative Cory Gardner, who are polling very closely with one another.

Photographer: Brent Lewis/The Denver Post vai Getty Images

Rep. Cory Gardner got called lots of things during his Senate campaign: "extreme," "way too extreme," "just too extreme for Colorado." Coloradans didn't agree. They booted the Democratic incumbent, Mark Udall, and made Gardner not just the next senator from Colorado but the new Republican poster boy. Why Gardner and not someone else? Because unlike Thom Tillis in North Carolina or Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Gardner prevailed handily in a state Obama won twice, most recently by 5 points. His win didn't solidify a red state for Republicans. It blazed a path forward for Republicans in blue states and could serve as a Rosetta Stone for a party hoping to win back the White House two years from now.

Gardner was the object of a transparently manipulative one-issue campaign in which Democrats sought to paint him as an anti-abortion zealot and a four-star general in the "war on women." He'd twice before supported state "personhood" bills granting legal rights to embryos, which would have outlawed abortion and most forms of contraception. Democrats thought a singular focus on this issue would activate female voters and signal Gardner's extremity on other issues, from economics to immigration. National Journal's rankings do show he has the 10th-most-conservative voting record in the House. 

But the attacks didn't work. Gardner didn't scare women—fewer of them voted than expected. He didn't offend Latinos—he over-performed in Latino-heavy counties. And exit polls show he won independent voters 50-43. But Gardner's true strength can't be captured in numbers or demographic groups. And it certainly wasn't a policy proposal (neither candidate really bothered with those). No, Gardner's political superpower is a relentless optimism and personal charisma that contrasts vividly with standard-model Washington Republicans and elicits whole arias of colorful descriptives from feature writers striving to capture this quality in print (me included).

After shadowing him in September, I wrote that Gardner's public bearing "is that of a man who just found out he's won the lottery." George Will went full man-crush, calling him "cherubic and ebullient, a human sunbeam whose unshakable cheerfulness is disconcertingly authentic." Molly Ball said his affect "falls somewhere between a human ray of sunshine and an overcaffeinated hamster." A Democratic strategist in Colorado I spoke to likened him to an adult version of Bob's Big Boy, another to an actor in an Orbit Gum commercial. You get the idea. But you really have to experience it to feel the full effect. As Democrats were getting pummeled on Election Night, it occurred to me that Gardner is the human counterpoint to Barack Obama's whiny, sullen resignation. That surely accounted for his surprisingly easy win.

Until now, Colorado Republicans have had a miserable decade, as the state turned from red to blue and candidate after candidate lost. Gardner's win is notable not just because it helped push the Senate into the Republican column, but because it showed how a flawed party could heal itself and do so pretty quickly. As Gardner was about to deliver his victory speech at the GOP election night headquarters at the Denver Hyatt, I ran into Ryan Call, the state GOP chairman. I asked him what he thought Gardner's win signified and his answer was a good one. "What this means most is that the quality of the candidate matters," he said. "His positive, reform-minded agenda, disciplined campaign, and candidate record are what inspired confidence among Colorado voters, and we hope that his leadership will set the model not just for Colorado but for the nation."

But it's worth dwelling for a moment on how forcefully Gardner broke with key elements of the current conservative agenda in order to win. He flip-flopped on the state "personhood" initiative he'd twice supported in the past (it lost, by the way). To blunt Udall's claim that he would outlaw birth control, Gardner cut an ad calling for birth control pills to be sold over the counter. Other Republicans copied him. When you listened to him, he sounded like a moderate. Plenty of moderate voters evidently agreed.

This was especially true in the victory speech he gave moments later. Given the exuberant Republican audience, I was probably the only one to detect echoes of Obama. "Voters around this state had their voices heard," Gardner told the giddy crowd. "They are not red, they are not blue, but they are crystal clear—crystal clear in their message to Washington D.C.: get your job done and get the heck out of the way." Gardner didn't exactly attack Big Government, either. "We need a government we can be proud of again," he said. "Government that solves big problems, because leaders have the courage to lead, to unite those voices who, while they may not have voted with the victor tonight, recognize the need to find common solutions."

Gardner's speech was true to his campaign. He seems to have internalized what's necessary to win in a state tinged blue. Republicans are sure to tout and celebrate his win, as they should. But will they learn from it? Soon, we'll see if any presidential contender will reach for the baton—and whether Gardner's personal superpower is necessary to grasp it.