At the time of my visit with Cory Gardner in Washington, D.C., this past spring, the senator’s office was a small series of windowless basement rooms inside the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a few hundred yards from the United States Capitol. I feel compelled to tell you here that you should not pity Colorado’s junior senator for his accommodations. After all, they appear to be built for ambition: One of the  previous inhabitants of SD-B40B is Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who announced in March he would enter the 2016 presidential race. Another is a man by the name of Barack Obama.

I was sitting in his waiting room when Gardner emerged from his private office. He has a broad, friendly face and is shorter and paunchier than you might imagine. His hair is perfect, parted and scooped from right to left, and the invading grays add a distinguished look to the 40-year-old, who suddenly is among the most powerful people in our country. “Heeey!” he said. “There’s something I want to show you.”

He brought me into his office. Under a pair of steer horns, there was a small bookcase decorated with International Harvester Company tractor models that remind him of his home in Yuma, a two-hour drive east of Denver. His desk was spotless, save for a few papers, a “Sen. Cory Gardner” nameplate, and a television that’s always tuned to C-SPAN. The senator walked me past a small table to one of the walls. On it were several black-and-white photographs: Trinidad in the late 1880s, Longmont in 1909, Greeley in 1915. “This is one of my favorites,” he told me and pointed to a century-old photo of his family’s farm-implement dealership back home.

He then turned, and we walked to a wall adjacent to his desk. “This is really interesting,” he said. “I got it printed from the National Archives.” It was a framed map of Hawaii with several tick marks just north of Oahu. “Japanese planes,” Gardner said. We were looking at a declassified map from the moments just before the Pearl Harbor attack.

It was an interesting choice for a wall hanging. Perhaps there was no better analogy for Gardner’s dramatic win this past November: the sneak attack on Democrats, the upset of political titan Mark Udall, the internal war Colorado Republicans have fought since his election. After all, a guy doesn’t hang something on the wall if it doesn’t have meaning.

“What does this say about you?” I asked.

Gardner looked at me blankly. Was I seriously comparing him to one of the most infamous attacks on Americans in the past century? “Nothing,” the senator said. Then he chuckled. “I just like history.”

At that, he flashed a whiter-than-white smile, looked at his spokesman, and said he had to take care of some business.

Cory Gardner
U.S. Senator Cory Gardner at the offices of his father’s Farmers Implement Co. in Yuma in spring 2015. The business was founded in 1915. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

Six months into his job, Cory Gardner is still figuring out his new place in Washington. I know this because on one of our many walks from the Capitol, Gardner went straight when he should have gone left. Or maybe it was right. Whatever it was, as Gardner strode across the marble floor in the Dirksen Building, he hesitated for a moment before asking his ever-present spokesman if we’d missed our turn. The aide shrugged. We kept walking. “I’m still learning my way around here,” Gardner told me. “You’d think I’d have figured this out by now.”

Gardner has the next five-and-a-half years to get his bearings. This is a position he’d fought for throughout much of 2014, after giving up an eminently safe seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and announcing his candidacy for the Senate. Since defeating Udall in November, Gardner has been viewed as Colorado’s Republican savior. He was the man who finally stemmed the blue tide flooding his home state; his successful campaign would be a road map for future swing-state Republican victories nationwide.

Despite this newfound attention, Gardner is something of an enigma on the national political scene. Even though he’s spent the past decade in public office—working his way from the Colorado House to the U.S. House to his newest job—he’s hardly known for grabbing headlines or for creating landmark legislation. His voting record has been dependably Republican (he’s earned a zero percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America since he entered the U.S. House in 2011 and an eight percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters), but he’s not considered a partisan showboat. In public, he lacks the charisma of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the outspokenness of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the Ivy League swagger of Cruz. But what he does have is energy and a seemingly bottomless well of optimism. When Gardner speaks, it’s in an upbeat, rambling patois, like a pinball bouncing off the bumpers—a temperament the Atlantic’s Molly Ball wrote is  “somewhere between a human ray of sunshine and an overcaffeinated hamster.”

And he appears to be genuinely well-liked. “Some people in politics like to talk even if they don’t have something to say,” says Tom Cotton, a freshman Republican senator from Arkansas who served two years with Gardner in the House. “Cory has never been like that. He’s dutiful and diligent, not grandstanding. He’s always giving a value-added perspective, even if you might not agree.” Says Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst based in Denver: “In his heart of hearts, he’s a mainstream conservative. He’s not doctrinaire; he’s very calculated.”

That approach was reflected in his campaign. In 2013, Gardner—and 131 other House members—sponsored an anti-abortion “personhood” constitutional amendment. But after Democrats attacked Gardner for his support of socially conservative issues during the Senate race last year, Gardner renounced his position, saying the legislation had unintended consequences that could ban certain forms of contraception. Gardner supporters hailed the decision as proof of their candidate’s careful consideration of issues. Udall’s campaign chalked up the reversal as a naked ploy for electoral expediency.

Playing to the middle—in a state that has never particularly cared for conservative browbeating—proved to be a smart strategy for a candidate whose party has struggled in recent years to win big-time races in Colorado. While Udall may have expected a Ken Buck–type, social-issues warrior, Gardner gently pressed subjects that were traditionally left untouched by the right. On June 5, 2014, he said he wanted undocumented immigrants who serve in the U.S. armed forces to earn a path to citizenship. On June 19, he announced his support for over-the-counter birth control. On August 1, he was one of only 11 House Republicans who supported President Obama’s program that granted work permits to immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children. He formed a rural broadband coalition and sponsored a water infrastructure bill—issues most conservatives would have gleefully opposed. Voters responded: On Election Day, Gardner turned out 983,891 votes to Udall’s 944,203.

Back in D.C. four months after his victory, Gardner finally found his way through the Dirksen Building and back to his office. I asked him about Udall’s campaign strategy. “There was a time when we recognized, What does the 13,000th ad on the same thing do?” he said. But what about his about-face on personhood? “Reasonable people can disagree,” Gardner said. “Having learned more, recognizing the goal of the legislation, it had impacts I could not support.” So did he regret his initial sponsorship of the amendment? “That’s something I can’t change,” he said. “What I can change going forward is continuing to fight for things that I believe are right.”

Much of who Gardner is today comes from Colorado’s Eastern Plains. He often invokes personal history in speeches by telling audiences about his family’s roots in Yuma, population 3,575. Central to his story is the Gardners’ century-old farm-implement business, which has survived two world wars, economic downturns, and the slow evaporation of agriculture-based communities throughout the country.

He was born in Yuma in 1974, the second of two children. Today, Gardner, his wife, Jaime, and their three young children—Alyson, Thatcher, and Caitlyn—live two blocks from his parents. He talks in great detail about household projects, how he infuses the region’s history into his life. He has a light from a long-gone grocery store that he rewired and hung in his home office, and a piece of wood trim from the family’s homestead also is used in the house, a 101-year-old yellow-sided two-story his great-grandparents once owned just off Main Street.

He tells and retells family stories, many of which center on lessons learned watching his father, John—a former town council member and registered Democrat—navigate the world of small-town politics. There’s the one about Yuma’s mayor passing out red roses to council members and then handing John Gardner a single dead flower. And there’s the time a teenage Cory Gardner complained his friends couldn’t play nighttime basketball at the town park because it was too dark. The next month, a light over the adjacent tennis court was twisted around so it would illuminate the boys’ games. “We had 30 kids able to play basketball,” Gardner says of his first experience with how politics could affect change. “It was one of those things where I realized you can do good.” During his senior year at Yuma High School, Gardner was elected president of the student council.
Like his father, Gardner grew up a Democrat. “Being different in Yuma meant not being a Republican,” he says. His passion as a teenager was improving rural schools, a position fostered during long car trips with his mother, Cindy, a stay-at-home mom who encouraged her son’s interests. After a baseball game in Brush in the early ’90s, Gardner and his mother spent the 50-mile drive home talking about school finance and how places like Yuma High were almost always forgotten.

As a high school junior in 1992, Gardner paid $10 to attend a luncheon with then U.S. Representative Wayne Allard. After the meal, Gardner cornered the Republican congressman and asked about education funding and the plight of the small school district. “His response to me pretty much was, ‘It’s not the federal government’s business,’?” Gardner remembers. “That was it. He turned around. I was kind of crushed.”

Cory Gardner and family
From Left: Alyson, Jaime, Thatcher, Cory, and Caitlyn in their Yuma backyard. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

Gardner decided he’d force the issue. The next year, he planned a mass walkout from Eastern Plains high schools—an event he was sure would get attention. As he was putting together final preparations for the event, he received calls from local Democratic bosses who advised him to call it off. Clearly the event would be an embarrassment for then Governor Roy Romer, himself a farm-boy Democrat from Holly who’d made education a priority in his administration. If Gardner followed the party’s wishes and canceled the walkout, Romer would come to Yuma, meet with Gardner, and participate in a pep rally for rural schools. The lure of having the ear of Colorado’s most prominent politician proved too much: Gardner canceled his event; Romer flew in, put on a leather bomber jacket, and rolled up his sleeves. “I totally got suckered,” Gardner says with a laugh. “I became a photo op.”

Gardner moved to Boulder in 1993 and attended the University of Colorado; after one year, he transferred to Colorado State University, where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in political science. He then enrolled at CU’s law school and eventually registered as a Republican. Although much has been made of Gardner’s political switch, he says his values haven’t changed. “Republicans were the party I identified with because we believe we can do things better ourselves that government shouldn’t be doing for us,” he says.

Following law school, he worked as a spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association, then as general counsel and legislative director for, ironically, Wayne Allard, who’d won election to the U.S. Senate six years earlier. Gardner met Jaime, who was working for the U.S. Department of the Interior, in 2002. They married in 2004. The next year, he was offered an appointment to an open Colorado House seat in the district that included his hometown. The opportunity seemed to be a natural step for the 30-year-old wunderkind whose ambitions were becoming more apparent.

Once he was in Denver, Gardner began developing relationships with future state GOP stars including Josh Penry and Frank McNulty. With those two in particular, Gardner found kindred spirits: young, ambitious political minds bent on changing established Republican politics. “He’s a rural guy through and through, with this old-fashioned patriotism about him,” says Penry, the former state Senate minority leader, who first met Gardner when the two were working as staffers in D.C. “He had to hustle and scrap to get where he is. Cory was friendly, but he could articulate an alternate worldview. You can’t fake that. Any ambitious politician thinks he can put on a blue suit, get in a car, and travel around. But Cory really put in his time; he understands how the world works, and it shows.”

After cruising to victory in the Colorado House of Representatives in 2006, Gardner found himself on the fast track in state politics. “He busted his ass,” one former staffer says. “He’d be in Sterling or Lamar, going 300 miles round-trip for an hour meeting, and he’d think nothing of it.”

Gardner made the move to D.C. in 2011 after handily defeating Betsy Markey, a Fort Collins Democrat who’d marched to her own win in the U.S. House three years earlier. Gardner’s district covered a massive swath of Colorado, much of it in the plains. He won a second term in 2012. He backed school vouchers and the Keystone XL pipeline and opposed Obamacare. Yet he also supported billions of dollars in agriculture subsidies, alternative energy, and voted to raise the debt ceiling—a contentious issue within his party.

“He had to hustle and scrap to get to where he is. Cory was friendly, but he could articulate an alternate worldview.”

In less than a decade, Gardner had gone from sitting through town meetings in the middle of nowhere to becoming the future of Colorado’s Republican Party. During one of our discussions, we settled down at his D.C. office table underneath the old photographs. I wanted to know how Gardner viewed the 2014 midterms. In his mind, it was all about the packaging. The 2014 election, just like 2008, 2010, and 2012 before it, wasn’t a watershed moment as much as it was his confirmation of an increasingly fed-up electorate, he told me. “Americans wanted solutions to their problems, regardless of party,” he said. “It’s not changing principles, it’s not changing core beliefs. It’s changing how you reach people, how you message, how you convince people of your principles.”

He pointed to the tractors on his bookcase. Republicans, he said, have been like International Harvester. Once known for producing some of the best, most reliable tractors in the world, International “got fat and happy.” They stopped innovating. They stuck with their most popular model year after year. John Deere, with its iconic green-and-yellow tractors and a slick marketing plan, took note. And it ate International’s lunch.

Farmers Implement Co. is located on U.S. 34 in Yuma, where the bustle of small-town life begins to give way to farm and field. The dealership has been there for the better part of two decades, after moving from a brick-and-glass building just off Main Street downtown. “Daddy Bill” Gardner opened that store in 1915 and sold Internationals, as did his son, Paul, when he took over the business after World War II. Paul gave the family business to his son, John, whose boy Cory will probably never have time to sell combines or balers. International went under in the mid-’80s, and now John Gardner sells polished red Case IH tractors, which are spread across his buffalo-grass lot like fire ants on a summer day.

John, in a red polo, stonewashed jeans, and sneakers, sat in a worn chair in his office, just outside the tile-covered sales floor. He looked up at me and pushed away from his desk, his white hair parted the opposite direction of his son’s. He was putting together an order for a customer, he told me. He only had a few minutes to talk.

I started broadly, wanting to know the big strokes of his son’s life. What was Cory Gardner like as a child? What interested him? Did he see a future politician way back then? John tilted his head a bit. “Well,” he said, “he’s just a good kid.”
How so? I asked.

“I don’t tell stories about him.”

But of course, like any proud dad, he did. “One time, when he was in law school, I had a few customers who didn’t pay their bills. Cory said, ‘Let me handle it, Dad.’ He wrote a letter to each of those guys. It was a three-stage letter. He must have taken a class on how to write those. Well, every one of them paid up before the third letter. Every one of them.

“You should hear him sing. He has this beautiful voice, but he doesn’t sing anymore. You want to know what makes a father proud? Hearing his son sing in West Side Story. That’ll make you damn proud. I don’t think he’s sung since his sister’s wedding.

“We used to play word games on trips in the car. Puns. We’d banter things around. He always had this fun, creative mind. He was quick on his feet. Maybe that’s where he got it from. And he can remember anyone’s face. He sure didn’t get that from me.

“My dad wanted me to go out in the world. Don’t stay in Yuma. But here I am. Cory? I tried to get him to stay.”

John pointed to his computer screen and told me he had to finish his order. Give him time and he’d come out and talk some more, he said. I stepped out of the doorway and into the showroom.

Aware of the optics of being a new face of the GOP, Gardner has worked to establish himself as true to his party while also maintaining momentum from his campaign.

I was looking at a photograph of the 2010 grand champion market swine from the Yuma County Fair when one of the dealership employees approached me. She took me to a 10-year-old photo of Paul Gardner, who died earlier this year. He’s buried at the town cemetery. In the photo, he’s shaking former President George W. Bush’s hand. They’re near what looks like a campaign bus; there’s a Walmart in the background. Bush is clenching Paul’s hand. “We think this is when he told the president he was a Democrat,” the woman told me. “There were other photos, but they didn’t get them. In those pictures, everyone in the background had a shocked look on their face.” She showed me a family photo, then took me to the parts counter to show off a wall filled with newspaper clippings from Cory Gardner’s time as an elected official. “He’s such a good man,” the woman said. Then she sighed. “I hope they don’t ruin him.”

A few minutes later, John emerged from his office. He told me he doesn’t know where his son got the political bug, but young Cory always had an unusual interest in his dad’s job on the town council. “He must have been six or seven, and he wanted to know how the council worked,” John told me. “He was so young to be interested in that. I never understood why he cared. It was a rotten job.” In high school, he “got some gumption. He did typical stuff boys do in towns like these,” John said, then wouldn’t elaborate. “Word gets around, you know? As a dad, I don’t think I’d want to know half the stuff.”

Then John laughed. “Who’s to say why we are how we are?” he asked. “Is it something we do as parents? Is it something else?” He looked out the window to the parking lot, then flicked the back of his hand at my shoulder. “Follow me,” he said.

On a cool spring afternoon, Cory Gardner emerged from the Senate chamber and dashed down a short hallway toward a bank of elevators. He’d just spent the previous hour presiding over the Senate and was running late to a scheduled appearance on CNN. This is, of course, how you transform yourself from a political unknown into a brand. You get on CNN, on MSNBC, on Fox News (he’s hit all three), you write newspaper editorials, you show your face.

Before he reached the elevators, he paused for a moment in the hallway and looked expectantly at two aides who’d been waiting outside the chamber, ready to brief him on the day’s events. As usual, the world was going to shit.

“OK,” Gardner said, then sucked in a breath. “Whadda we got?”

Even by crappy-day standards, this one was brutal. Pro-Russia rebels were pouring into Ukraine, a troubling development following a recently signed cease-fire agreement. The dance over Iran’s nuclear development continued. And in Tunisia, three ISIS gunmen had launched an attack on a museum and killed 23 people.

“We’re just throwing out country names right now,” one of the aides said. The men piled into the elevator, and the doors closed behind them.

Aware of the optics of being a new face of the GOP, Gardner has worked to establish himself as true to his party while also maintaining momentum from his campaign. In January—just after taking office—he enhanced his credibility as a moderate by ripping into House Republicans, saying they made a monumental mistake by voting to roll back the presidential executive action that would have shielded millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Unsurprisingly, Gardner’s comments drew ire from corners of the conservative movement. “Unfortunately,” the Breitbart website Big Government declared, “Republicans like Gardner don’t appear to have the backbone to just say no to anything.”

Two months later, Gardner swung the other way. This time, he was one of 47 Republican senators who signed Senator Cotton’s controversial letter to Iran that attempted to undercut Obama’s work hammering out a nuclear agreement. “We cannot afford to enter into a bad deal that allows a nuclear Iran,” Gardner explained to me when I asked why he signed the letter, a decision that was roundly criticized. The president’s deal was “an unacceptable path forward,” he added. “A nuclear Iran will set up a series of trip wires that will lead to another worldwide arms race.”

His introduction to the Senate has been buoyed enormously by old-guard Republicans, who often find themselves at odds over an increasingly influential tea party but, nonetheless, control the levers of power. He’s already been assigned to three top committees—foreign relations, energy and natural resources, and commerce, science, and transportation—a hint of his emerging importance to the GOP. At the beginning of the Senate’s session, Gardner was also put on Texas Senator John Cornyn’s whip team, a clear indication that Gardner’s collegiality will be on full display with centrist Democrats who face tough re-elections next year.

Gardner says there are extreme differences between the House and the Senate. Most important, he thinks he can be a more effective leader in his current role simply because of the numbers. “There’s an absolute ability to jump into the issues as a senator and be involved on very detailed policy debates immediately,” he told me. “You can actually have real impact and be the difference between whether something is heard. [In the House], seniority matters significantly. I was so far down the aisle on the energy and commerce committee there that most people thought I was a witness. When it comes to setting agendas and being able to be a part of shaping the biggest issues, the Senate is more conducive to that activity.”

Which makes it impossible not to wonder about Gardner’s prospects. In many ways he’s in unique political territory, at least for a Coloradan. Of the six men in the past 25 years who’ve been elected to the Senate from this state, none has been younger than Gardner. Only two—Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell—have served two full terms. In those two-and-a-half decades, only Udall left involuntarily.

His introduction to the Senate has been buoyed enormously by old-guard Republicans.

Gardner assumes a genial tone when questioned whether he has his eye on an even higher office. “It’s far too early,” he told me at one point. “My wife would put me on the couch,” he said another time. “That’s the future, and I have to be focused on the present.”

Inside the rotunda at the Russell Senate Office Building, a cameraman fixed Gardner’s microphone to his lapel. A set of lights surrounded him, and a small television on the floor beamed a view of CNN’s Situation Room and its white-maned host, Wolf Blitzer. Before going live, Blitzer appeared on the screen and said something about Colorado that only the cameraman and Gardner could hear. “We have more days of sunshine than anybody else!” the senator beamed. His two aides stood off to one side. One of the men flashed a thumbs-up. The other stared between the white columns and across the rotunda to where Marco Rubio was standing for his own interview, this one on Fox News.

The CNN cameraman stepped back, the interview started, and all was good. For a few moments, looking up from the ground floor at Rubio and Gardner as they issued the day’s Republican messages, the GOP’s future was bathed in a constellation of artificial lighting.

At one point during our time together, Gardner suggested we walk back to his office. “I need some air,” he said. We’d been talking about Colorado’s Republican Party, which surprised political observers this past spring when delegates dropped their chairman. Ryan Call was a major force behind November’s statewide wins, the biggest of which belonged to the man now waiting to cross Constitution Avenue.

Gardner publicly backed Call, a pragmatist who lost to Steve House (slogan: “It Takes A House To Win At Home”), a former Adams County GOP chairman who’d failed in his own 2014 gubernatorial run but earned respect among tea partiers and several big-name Republicans, including state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. In an odd twist befitting the purge, Coffman’s husband, U.S. Representative Mike Coffman, supported Call.

It was a historic defeat on the state political scene: Not since the late 1950s had a sitting Colorado GOP chairman lost re-election. In many ways, the loss was a repudiation of what many Republicans claimed was Call’s inattention to down-ballot legislative races. In some cases, the argument went, viable conservatives weren’t supported while the party’s focus went to candidates like Gardner.

Call’s loss was also something of a rejection of Gardner—an irony considering how his win helped Republicans at the national level. Rather than showing a party unified behind a single candidate, Gardner’s victory appeared to highlight the growing divide between those Colorado Republicans who support electable politicians and the dogmatic conservatives who, as one political analyst pointed out, “just want to fight yesterday’s battles.”

Amid the infighting, there was a real point to be made within the state: November’s victories hardly evoked images of the GOP steamroller that had flattened Democrats’ hopes in other parts of the country. Yes, Udall lost. Yes, Republicans took control of the state Senate and gained three seats in the state House. But in a year when the GOP enjoyed its biggest advantage this century, Colorado’s Republicans hadn’t found the formula to defeat Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper. It hadn’t taken back the state House. Even Gardner had won by fewer than two percentage points—a smaller victory than Hickenlooper’s—which for hardliners made the win seem a bit hollow.

As we waited for the light, Gardner looked like he was tired of the bickering. He’d seen Michael Bennet, his Democratic Senate counterpart from Colorado, a few days after Call’s loss. “He asked if we were already tired of winning,” Gardner said with a bemused laugh.

I wondered whether Gardner’s political environment had already changed. “Cory Gardner occupies a very weird space,” one prominent Colorado conservative told me after November’s election. “Conservatives don’t see him as a real conservative, and the left can’t stand him. Even after this election, no one really knows what he stands for.” Gardner doesn’t really seem to care. When I later asked him about the challenges within his own party, he put a positive spin on the state GOP’s changes. He didn’t see Call’s loss as a slight against him or a rejection of his election strategy. To Gardner, his win was about vision and good planning. It was also about what he says was Democrats’ shortsighted belief that “every Republican is the same. They believed the race was about a fundamentally different candidate.”

So who is he, really?

“I’m a conservative who’s reasonable and believes in reasonable government,” Gardner told me. “Too many times Republicans are no. They’re a cross between a schoolmarm and an unfriendly accountant. We can’t simply be no.” That, he added, has been his party’s Achilles’ heel. “We do have people who are saying no to renewable energy. And we have people who are saying no, not any kind of immigration reform. You know what? That’s not a winning formula for Colorado, or for the Republican Party nationwide.”

“Conservatives don’t see him as a real conservative, and the left can’t stand him.”

His answers were savvy and strategic, exactly what you’d expect from a freshman senator whom TV pundits had already anointed as potential vice presidential material. This past spring, the American Spectator also put him on its short list of presidential candidates for 2020, should Democrats take the top job again next year. Put another way, even if Cory Gardner isn’t looking to the future, others are doing it for him.

A pack of Doral cigarettes lay in the center console of John Gardner’s Dodge pickup, parked outside the implement dealership. He turned the ignition and didn’t bother to fasten his seat belt as we pulled out of the lot and made a right onto the highway.

Yuma’s a place where folks hang American flags from their porches. The county fair is advertised on storefront windows; a weekday high school baseball game plays on the radio. Unlike most plains towns, Yuma has grown considerably in the past 25 years, mostly with Mexican immigrants who’ve come to work on the nearby farms. There’s a Mexican restaurant off Main Street now, and the sounds of mariachi music blast from passing cars.

Still, there have been tough times around here. There’s a vacant storefront where the grocery used to be. The two hardware stores near the railroad tracks are empty much of the time. “When the price of commodities drop, we’re feeling it immediately,” John told me. “There’s no delay, it’s just, whoosh….”

We rumbled up the highway. Cottonwood fluff blew across the asphalt like snow. John made a few turns and parked outside the town elementary school, where Cory Gardner’s oldest daughter, Alyson, is a student. We waited for a few minutes, then John got out of the truck and waved to his granddaughter.

She smiled, popped open the truck door, and settled into a seat in the back. I introduced myself, and she gave me a look. She’d Skyped in class with her dad today, but we talked instead about her father’s basement office in D.C. There’s a rumor that food waste from one of the Senate restaurants is compacted near her dad’s office and left to sit through the weekend. “It smells like a dead animal!” she said and then giggled.

We headed over to John’s house, a few blocks away. It’s an elegant little country home with a pitched roof, perfectly cut grass, and a thick row of lilacs out back. John could see Cindy, his wife, near the doorway. He motioned for her to come outside. I rolled down my window.

She told me her son always wanted to work in politics. Back in 2005, when he was appointed to the state House, he ran the idea by her, but it was clear he wasn’t asking for permission. When he ran for Congress, he did the same thing. She worried he’d be away from his family too often. He put 30,000 miles on his truck one year, visiting constituents. “But it’s what he loves to do,” Cindy said. “He loves the plains, he loves this state.” When her son ran for the Senate, Cindy knew there’d be more pressures on him, on his family. She couldn’t bear watching television during the campaign for fear she’d see another Udall ad. “That’s my son!” she said. “They don’t know him.”

John told me his son had always looked at rising beyond his duties as a congressman. “I think he always wanted to be a senator,” he said. And now that Cindy’s allowed herself to watch TV again, she’s heard people who say her son might go further. “It’s hard to wrap your mind around that,” she said. “President? Vice president? What?”

“I don’t know what he’s thinking,” John added. “But I hear that and I think: No. Nah. Surely not.”

After a few more minutes, John said we had to get back to the dealership. Before we pulled away, I asked him and his wife if having a senator son was a big deal to them.

“I’m not easily impressed,” John said.

Cindy laughed. “It’s not special,” she told me. “Well, maybe it is. You know, it’s just Cory. I’m proud of him. But I still tell him to wipe his shoes at the front door.”