Ask Senator Cory Gardner and former Governor John Hickenlooper if they would have called each other “friends” at one point in their careers, and you’ll get two different answers.

“Absolutely,” Gardner says. He doesn’t hesitate when asked if the Democrat running against him for the U.S. Senate was once a friend.

Faced with the same question, Hickenlooper pauses, offering a less sure assessment. “We were perfectly cordial,” he says. “For me, generally when you get to that next level, ‘friends’ is when you’re going out to dinner together. We always kept each other at an arm’s length, I think. We didn’t go and hang out.”

Roxane White, Hickenlooper’s former chief of staff, makes a similar distinction. “They were work friends,” she says. “They might have been at each other’s birthday parties, but it would have been work parties, not family parties.”

Senator Cory Gardner (then congressman) and Governor John Hickenlooper chat after landing in a helicopter in 2013 with the rest of Colorado’s congressional delegation. Photo courtesy of the Colorado National Guard

Still, she describes that relationship as being productive and collaborative, which was never more true than in 2013 when fires and floods devastated Colorado communities. In September of that year, the two men boarded a helicopter with the rest of the state’s congressional delegation and flew over the Boulder foothills to survey the damage. Hickenlooper, who was on crutches due to hip surgery, remembers Gardner being “alert” that day, which might be a gross understatement. As they flew over flooded landscapes and destroyed homes, Gardner spotted two stranded groups of people waving to them, prompting the chopper to descend and complete an improbable rescue.

Their relationship didn’t always involve heroics, but White says there was an era when the two men could easily set their differences aside: “They never let party get in the way of getting work done.”

Those days may well be over now. Gardner and Hickenlooper have leveled each other with so many attacks throughout their U.S. Senate campaigns that it’s hard to imagine they’ll be anything more than cold acquaintances beyond 2020. They both deserve some blame for that, as does today’s bitter political ecosystem. There was a time when their relationship represented the potential rewards of bipartisanship in Colorado. But now, their campaigns are proving it may no longer be possible.

Republican U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, right, and Democratic former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper elbow bump after a debate, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 in Denver. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via AP, Pool)

It was probably 2002. Maybe 2003. Neither candidate remembers the precise encounter, but Gardner and Hickenlooper agree their first meeting was at some sort of political or charity event. According to Hickenlooper, it might have been a fundraiser for the Future Farmers of America. Gardner thinks it was an event organized by his former boss, U.S. Senator Wayne Allard. Either way, they didn’t make a huge impression on each other. But in the years that followed, the two men gradually became friendly as they made inroads with Colorado’s political glitterati—Hickenlooper as Denver’s mayor and Gardner as a state representative. 

“Hickenlooper seemed like a nice guy,” Gardner remembers. “You know, he would come over to the Capitol and we’d talk about issues that were important to Denver…. Yeah, a nice guy.” 

Both men were making splashes in Colorado’s political scene in the mid-2000s, but Gardner was the one destined to go far. Even Hickenlooper knew it. “[Gardner] looked like a rising star. He was slick and polished,” Hickenlooper says. “You know, you could tell he was going to be good—well, he was going to be a good politician.” He pauses. “‘Good’ has a lot of definitions.” 

Gardner was good. Born in Yuma, he studied political science at Colorado State University and earned his law degree from the University of Colorado. As a young attorney, the former Democrat (he switched parties in college) wasted little time climbing the rungs of the Republican Party. One of his first jobs after law school was as a general counsel and legislative aide to Allard, who was beginning his second term in the U.S. Senate (Allard did not respond to an interview request). In 2005, Gardner was appointed to an open seat in the Colorado General Assembly and elected to serve a full term the next year. His style was that of a well-groomed politician who could debate effectively, pass key legislation, and hold his colleagues to a high standard. 

Rob Witwer, a former Republican representative who entered the state House with Gardner, remembers a legislator whose ambition was nearly unmatched in the chambers. “I think everyone knew he had a bright future,” he says. “He hit the ground running and had no issues finding his bearings.” 

Hickenlooper was not that smooth-talking kind of politician. Before he was elected mayor, he wasn’t a politician at all. He moved to Denver from the East Coast in the mid-1970s to be a petroleum engineer, and when he was laid off in 1986, he switched his gaze to the restaurant industry. In 1988 he opened Denver’s first brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Company, one of the first businesses to launch as part of the revitalization of LoDo. For more than a decade, he owned and operated restaurants and breweries across Colorado and beyond.

When he ran for mayor in 2003, he did so as an earnest businessman with a less-manicured persona. “He was an outsider. He was part of the new Denver,” Witwer remembers. “He represented the business community, and he did not come from Denver political circles.” 

Still, the political skill that Hickenlooper developed was working. On December 30, 2006, a few months before Hickenlooper won re-election as mayor, Denver Post columnist Dan Haley wrote a piece titled “10 Politicians to Watch in the New Year.” In it, he placed Hickenlooper at number three. Gardner ranked number nine. 

If you polled Colorado powerbrokers about whether they could foresee Hickenlooper and Gardner eventually squaring off in a high-profile U.S. Senate race, few would have questioned the idea—except, perhaps, for the candidates themselves. 

Asked if he ever imagined he’d run against Hickenlooper, Gardner laughed: “No, no. Never. I always thought he was old!” Gardner says. “He’s like 20-something years older than me, so I never thought that would be possible.” 

Hickenlooper, too, says it never crossed his mind: “No. Never,” he echoes. “When I ran for re-election as mayor, I thought that was going to be the end. I thought [Bill] Ritter would do a second term as governor. I was looking forward to getting back into the restaurant business.” 

Governor John Hickenlooper speaks at a press conference after being briefed on the Lake Christine fire in El Jebel on Friday, July 6, 2018 with Colorado U.S. Representative Scott Tipton (back left) and Senator Cory Gardner (right). Photo by Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times via AP

Ritter did not seek a second term, and Hickenlooper did not get back into the restaurant business. Instead, Hickenlooper scored the biggest win of his political career on November 2, 2010, when he trounced American Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo and Republican Dan Maes to become Colorado’s 42nd governor. The night he won, he credited his positive campaign for the large margin of victory: “We focused on what we were for, not what we were against. Our problems are too big for partisan politics.”

The same night, then 36-year-old Gardner was celebrating as well. As many predicted, he ran against and handily beat Democrat Betsy Markey in the race for Colorado’s 4th Congressional District. Cory Gardner was going to Washington, D.C., to represent eastern Colorado and his hometown of Yuma. It was in the years that followed that Gardner and Hickenlooper began working together regularly. As governor, Hickenlooper would host regular check-in meetings with Colorado’s congressional delegation. “[Gardner] was consistent in showing up,” Hickenlooper says. “He tried always to be on the calls.”  

Gardner was, of course, also ambitious. And in 2014, after serving just two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, Gardner made perhaps the boldest move of his career. He ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by Mark Udall, the Democrat who had replaced Wayne Allard six years before. “It was really a roll of the dice. It was a bold leap,” Witwer says, especially because Gardner’s place in Congress was secure. “[District 4] was a safe seat, and he could have had it as long as he wanted.” 

Rather than defend that House seat, Gardner became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent senator in Colorado in 36 years. The race was watched closely across the country, and at just 40 years old the Republican delivered an upset victory.

The relationship between Hickenlooper and Gardner remained cordial and productive after Gardner joined the Senate. According to one interview with the Denver Post, Gardner called Hickenlooper the morning after the 2014 election—in which Hickenlooper was also re-elected—and the men agreed they would have a “good partnership” going forward. 

And, presumably, they did. Even Donald Trump’s election in 2016 didn’t immediately create conflict between them. When the Access Hollywood audio of Trump bragging about sexual assault leaked a month before Election Day, Gardner not only called on him to step down, but he also vowed not to vote for the Republican nominee. 

According to Gardner, Hickenlooper often reached out about issues like the Outdoor Retailer trade show coming to Colorado, health care reform, and even the Bureau of Land Management’s possible relocation to Colorado after the 2016 election. Around that time, Hickenlooper repeatedly gave Gardner high marks in public comments for working across the aisle with Democrats like Colorado Senator Michael Bennet. Despite a president who was sowing division across the country, Colorado seemed to have leaders in place who were willing to avoid the pitfalls of heightened partisanship. 

Things changed after Hickenlooper left the governor’s office in January 2019. Strategists and pollsters had already pegged Gardner’s seat as one of the likeliest to flip blue in 2020. And while some hoped he would run for the Senate, Hickenlooper instead did the thing everyone knew he was going to do: He ran for president—and it didn’t go well. Less than six months after declaring his candidacy, he dropped out and did another thing everyone knew he was going to do: He announced he was running for the Senate

By the time he entered the Senate race in August 2019, several things were clear. First, national Democrats had decided—perhaps too blatantly—that Hickenlooper was their best shot to win back a Senate seat. Second, Gardner could not win re-election if he distanced himself from Trump. And, at a time when the national and local political ecosystem was becoming as combustible as the drought-stricken Colorado wilderness, Hick and Gardner were on a collision course. As the campaigns accelerated, the candidates’ discourse deteriorated.

“I think it all changed when [Hickenlooper] decided to run for president and had to take a consolation prize in the Senate,” Gardner says. “His presidential campaign was an embarrassment. And he couldn’t handle that embarrassment…. Failing as miserably as he was, I figured he would do something to resuscitate his career.” 

President Donald Trump jokes with U.S. Senator Cory Gardner at a campaign rally Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Photo by David Zalubowski / AP Photo

Hickenlooper is only slightly kinder to his old ally. “Cory Gardner is not the person I thought he was. He made such a big deal about being an independent voice for Colorado, and he was going to be so bipartisan,” Hickenlooper says. “He couldn’t win if he didn’t stick tightly beside Trump…. Cory made a decision that he was no longer going to put Colorado first, he was going to put Donald Trump first.” 

Anyone who has followed the race won’t be surprised by this rhetoric; their campaigns have been using some variation of these talking points for months. 

There is some truth to it all, too. Gardner has embraced Trump in a way he didn’t four years ago. In February, he even took the stage with Trump at a Colorado Springs rally, during which Trump told the crowd that Gardner “has been with us 100 percent.” And Hickenlooper did have a rough go on the presidential campaign trail and did say on the record he wasn’t “cut out to be a senator.” 

John Hickenlooper
Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, left, applauds at a campaign house party on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, in Manchester, N.H. Photo by Elise Amendola / AP Photo

These are hardly the only attacks the campaigns have lodged against each other. Gardner is unrelenting about the ethics charges Hickenlooper was fined for in June. Hickenlooper rarely misses an opportunity to malign his opponent’s voting record and said clearly last month that “Cory Gardner is no friend of mine.” They’re both using TV ads to mock each other. Gardner got in a shower fully clothed and complained about negative ads as a nod to Hickenlooper’s infamous 2010 commercial in which he promised to run a clean campaign. Hickenlooper, in turn, ran an ad featuring two cardboard Cory Gardners, which has become a favorite means of derision employed by Democratic strategists over the past few years. 

Roxane White, who has watched it all unfold, offers a bleak judgement: “It’s become toxic for the people of Colorado.” 

“Our problems are too big for partisan politics.” That’s what John Hickenlooper said in 2010. And now, in 2020, our problems are so much bigger than they were a decade ago. The largest wildfires we’ve ever seen are still burning. The COVID-19 pandemic is in its third deadly wave. Local businesses are shuttering, and thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes. Yet this moment of hyper-partisanship is obscuring important conversations about these issues.

To be fair, the decline began years ago, before Hickenlooper left the governor’s office, before Trump was elected president, and quite possibly before these two candidates ever met. “We’ve been on this path for a long time,” says Terrance Carroll, the former state House Speaker who is currently the Colorado director of Unite America, an organization trying to bridge partisan divides. 

Carroll thinks the deterioration began nationally in the mid-1990s and inevitably made it to Colorado in the years that followed. Witwer, whose co-written book, The Blueprint, outlines how Democrats took control of Colorado politics in the early aughts, marks 2004—when wealthy donors like Tim Gill and Pat Stryker began bankrolling candidates—as a point of no return locally. “Every cycle since, partisanship gets worse,” he says. 

Certainly, events from recent memory have exacerbated the issue—and the president’s behavior is chief among the dividing forces. But Carroll says we’d be wrong to simply blame Trump for the erosion of civility. “Trump alone is not the cause of hyperpolarization and hyperpartisanship,” he says. “Trump is the result of hyperpartisanship. Trump had a role to play in it, but he is just the pinnacle.” 

Maybe that’s all true. But as Witwer explains, the president’s impact hangs over every political conversation right now—especially Colorado’s race for the U.S. Senate. 

“Ninety-eight percent of this is a proxy war over how people feel about Donald Trump,” Witwer says. “It’s really unfortunate that you have two guys who, over the course of two decades, have proven themselves to be substantive and bipartisan, and in a single campaign cycle both of their reputations have been so unfairly tarnished because of the overheated political environment we’re in now.” 

While the candidates’ reputations are up for debate, you can’t deny this race bludgeoned them both. But what about the old days, when Hickenlooper and Gardner were friends—or at least cordial? Is there any hope that after this election they’ll find a way to support each other? 

Here’s Gardner’s take: “I understand that he does not consider me a friend, but look, it’s too bad if he’s gotten so bitter that he can’t even have friends in this business. I still think the friendship is there. I have no problem. I think he has a much different opinion.” 

Perhaps Hickenlooper doesn’t.

“There’s no margin in having enemies. There’s no profit in it,” Hickenlooper says. “I certainly will reach out to those who supported [Gardner], and I’m sure I’ll end up reaching out to him. It’s just better for your soul. I think it makes the world a better place. The chances of actually moving things in the right directions go up.” 

Who knows? Maybe after this election, Gardner and Hickenlooper will go for a drink and reach that “next level” of friendship. Or maybe they’ll charter another helicopter together and survey the damage this election did to Colorado’s political discourse. Perhaps, if they look hard enough, they’ll find us waving below.

(MORE: 5280‘s Guide to the 2020 Election)

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.