Neither Sen. Cory Gardner nor Sen. Michael Bennet walked in a hometown parade, judged a county fair, or kissed a baby this Independence Day. They weren’t photographed smiling and waving to constituents. On the contrary, the senators eschewed the low-hanging political fruit of Fourth of July photo opportunities over the break—but for two very different reasons.
Bennet’s press secretary, Laurie Cipriano, told 5280 that the Democratic senator was traveling as part of a congressional delegation to Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador from July 2 through July 7. On Sunday, Bennet made a surprise appearance at a rally organized by the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative in support of the Affordable Care Act, the Denver Post reported.
Sen. Gardner, on the other hand, seemingly avoided the July 4 festivities completely, falling in line with throngs of U.S. senators who chose to avoid any and all confrontation with constituents over the holiday. With so much rancor at this time, Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer doesn’t blame him.
“Who would want to go camping in the middle of a forest fire? Not a good venue for a celebration. Previous Fourths didn’t feature the combined circuses of the ‘better’ health plan, congressional dysfunction, Trump, and tweets…and political tribalism is at what might be a historical high,” Straayer said in an email. “It’s not your normal Independence Day.”
Bennet doesn’t have much to lose by engaging with his constituents. His party isn’t behind the immensely unpopular health care bill introduced by the Senate GOP, plus, Bennet has job security for about another five years (Gardner’s got it for two and some change). Overall, the Democratic senator has held 13 town halls this year, beginning March 16 in the conservative-leaning Colorado Springs, according to Cipriano. Gardner has held zero.
According to CSU political science professor Robert Duffy, Gardner is in a tough spot. He’s an ambitious rising star in the GOP, with much to lose by falling out of line with the party or appearing hypocritical. Case in point: Gardner made his opposition to the Affordable Care Act a pillar of his campaign, and as a senator voted to repeal it—with no danger of being successful—on more than one occasion. And yet, Colorado voters do not approve of the GOP’s proposed replacement bill.
“It is very difficult to defend taking health insurance away from 22–23 million people, ending Medicaid, and throwing the health care system in rural Colorado into disarray, which the Senate bill would do,” Duffy said in an email. “The Senate bill is historically unpopular. And this is a real problem for [Gardner], since he was one of the small group of Senators who was charged with drafting the bill (even though he now denies that he had anything to do it).”
Anand Sokhey, a University of Colorado Boulder political science professor, thinks Gardner’s choice to lay low over the holiday was strategic. “I’m sure that they are trying to avoid giving extra voice and photo opportunities to those in opposition [to the Republican plan],” Sokhey said in an email. “[Republicans] watched what happened to Democrats holding town halls during the development of Obamacare (e.g., summer of 2009), and know from polling that the GOP efforts at repeal/reform might be considered at best controversial (and at worst, pretty unpopular).”
But even though Gardner avoided public crowds, he couldn’t shake the news. On June 29, about 10 wheelchair-bound protesters were dragged from his office and arrested, as they staged a two-day sit-in in opposition to the GOP’s health care bill. And last week, Gardner toured the Western Slope, visiting two hospitals and agrarian businesses, but did not make himself available for public comment. The Aspen Times reported that Gardner canceled a lunch with local Republicans in Steamboat on Friday after protesters gathered outside. (Gardner’s office did not respond to 5280’s request for comment.)
Sokhey says he thinks Gardner’s absence from the public eye isn’t likely to affect him much politically, unless it becomes a part of a broader narrative. Ironically, it might be doing just that. On one occasion, Gardner was targeted by left-wing activists who held “town halls” they knew he wouldn’t show up to in protest of his avoidance of in-person public comment.
Of course, there’s no way to predict how Gardner’s behavior will affect his future prospects, but by Sokhey’s measure, he’s batting 0 for 2—being both on the wrong side of a hugely unpopular piece of legislation and continuously hiding from his constituents.
“While I’m not sure people will remember his presence/absence at specific constituent events years from now,” Sokhey wrote, “People and groups will most certainly tie him to the success or failure of any healthcare reform efforts.”
If that’s the case, Gardner’s political future doesn’t look so good.
Clarification, 7/12/17: After this article was published, Bennet’s press secretary, Laurie Cipriano, told 5280 that the senator was on an official, unpublicized visit to Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras from July 2 through July 7. Cipriano said the trip was scheduled when they believed the Senate vote on the health care bill would take place before the July 4 recess. The article has been updated to reflect this new information.