On Tuesday, Gardner was projected to lose his bid for a second term to former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in a race that never really lived up to its early hype, mostly due to Trump’s unpopularity in the state that has an increasingly diverse electorate. Fox News and NBC News projected a Hickenlooper win.
The juxtaposition of Gardner’s comment about the president and Tuesday’s result best sums up his posture as a senator who did little, if anything, to separate himself from Trump in the past four years. After condemning him during the 2016 campaign, Gardner, 46, endorsed Trump once he became president and enthusiastically backed his agenda, staying quiet even when other GOP senators spoke out against his worst behavior. His decision not to put any distance between himself and Trump soon gave an air of inevitably to Gardner’s political fate.
Hickenlooper, a former Denver mayor and popular governor whose second term ended in January 2019, entered the Senate race reluctantly. Initially, he was adamant that he didn’t want to be a senator, repeatedly stating that he didn’t think he’d like the job. The 68-year-old relented after appeals from top Democrats, who viewed his candidacy as the best chance to gain Colorado’s Senate seat in the 2020 election.
Like other Democratic candidates, Hickenlooper made health care a centerpiece of his campaign, touting his work expanding Medicaid in Colorado under the Affordable Care Act. He blasted Gardner for voting to repeal the law and warned that if Republicans had their way, they would undo its insurance protections, including those provided for with people with preexisting conditions.
Gardner claimed he would protect people with preexisting conditions, citing a bill he introduced with other vulnerable GOP senators designed to give them political cover on the issue ahead of the November election. But experts said the bill included various loopholes that, if made into law, would still allow insurers to exclude people with pre-existing conditions.
Garnder’s strategy in the race hinged on remaking himself as a bipartisan champion of conservation and public lands, one who convinced Trump to sign a bill permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a top issue in the Mountain West. While environmentalists applauded his work, critics saw it as a veiled attempt to win a tough reelection race, given his past vote against the program.
Meanwhile, unlike other vulnerable Republicans on this year’s ballot who began highlighting their occasional breaks with Trump occasionally, Gardner remained committed to the president’s priorities.
Confidence among Democrats in the race’s outcome was evident when a party super PAC pulled its ads from the state’s airways in October. Hickenlooper also maintained a huge fundraising advantage during the campaign, outraising Gardner in the third quarter by about $15 million alone.