Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner had reeled in a big political fish.
A major government agency, the Bureau of Land Management, was moving to his state and marking a victory years in the making for one of the Senate's most vulnerable Republicans. But Gardner's moment of triumph rolled out Monday in the shadow of President Donald Trump's racist tweets calling for four congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from. Republicans, perhaps Gardner most of all, struggled to respond.
A conservative radio show host wanted to know: Had Gardner heard about Trump's tweets?
“We have been working on the BLM move, and that's basically everything we've been trying to get done,” Gardner replied.
“I translate that as `I don't want to talk about it,”' chortled Denver host Steffan Tubbs.
It's a feeling widely shared among Republicans in Congress weary of answering for Trump's assorted provocations about Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, people of color, women and more.
But as Gardner's response showed, Trump's pass-or-fail loyalty tests don't leave “no comment” as much of an option for the Republican senators running for reelection in 2020. The president has a record of helping unseat “disloyal” members of the GOP in the House and the Senate. Love, hate or tolerate Trump, Gardner and other endangered Republicans will need his support as the president amps up his own bid for reelection.
There was a sense this week that Trump's “go home” controversy marked an intensifying phase in the president's approach and that Gardner may have offered an early clue for 2020 campaigns on how to respond when the president steps on an accomplishment. The answer: blandly and minimally, with relentless pivots back to issues.
On Sunday, Trump launched an unapologetic stream of tweets suggesting that the four women leave the United States and casting them as haters of America, Jews and Israel. He didn't name the members of the self-styled “squad,” but his remarks were in clear reference to liberal freshmen Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Condemnation rolled in from Democrats and a few Republicans, and Trump offered no apologies.
Then came what was supposed to be Gardner's rollout Monday, when he tweeted midafternoon that he was “thrilled” to announce that the administration was moving the agency from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado. The Interior Department, which oversees the bureau, said about 300 jobs would move to Western states, with about 85 jobs for Colorado.
“This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government,” Gardner said in a statement.
By Tuesday, Gardner offered up a more on-point answer to the question of whether and how much he supports Trump's racist tweets.
“I disagree with the president,” Gardner told Denver-area KOA NewsRadio. “I wouldn't have sent these tweets.”
But asked by CNN later at the Capitol, he would not say whether he thought Trump's tweets were racist.
His caution may have been informed by the election math. Gardner was elected to the Senate by a little under 2 percentage points in the Republican wave year of 2014, while Democrats swept statewide offices in Colorado last year, winning the governorship by 11 percentage points. Democrat Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in Colorado by 5 percentage points in 2016. Voter registration in the state is divided more or less evenly three ways, among Republicans, Democrats and independents.
That makes Gardner perhaps the most vulnerable GOP senator in the country as Republicans defend 22 seats and their Senate majority.
Like many in his party, Gardner has a complicated history with Trump. Gardner briefly endorsed the reality television star-turned-presidential candidate in 2016 but rescinded that backing after the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasted of groping women.
This time, Gardner has already endorsed Trump's reelection campaign.
He's had to walk a political tightrope. To win another term, Gardner will need to hold the votes of Colorado's Trump-allied Republicans who remain suspicious of the senator's rescinded endorsement in 2016, while winning over independents who reject the president but are wary of the Democrats' agenda.
Gardner has occasionally chastised the president after controversial moments - notably after Trump praised “both sides” following a confrontation between neo-Nazis and activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that left a counterprotester dead - and he's carved out a distinct path on immigration. But Gardner has also voted for most of Trump's priorities. He's supported the president's effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his tax cut, both his Supreme Court justices and several other federal judges, along with most of his Cabinet.
Gardner, who has a sunny disposition, has also embraced elements of Trump's incendiary remarks. In a speech at a conservative gathering in Denver on Friday, Gardner, who has bemoaned Democrats' embrace of “socialism,” slammed what Republicans describe as the leftward drift of Democrats.
“Since when did wearing the Betsy Ross flag become akin to wearing a swastika?” Gardner asked. “Since when did men and women trying to protect our borders and keep our country safe become Nazis running concentration camps?
Gardner's approach apparently passed Trump's loyalty test and by late Tuesday was being cited as an example for others in the party.
“Sen. Gardner is rightly focused on policies, not personalities,” said Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, chairman of the Senate's Republican campaign arm. “If we do that, we win.”
But Trump's efforts to rally his base of supporters can flip well-laid plans, said one pollster.
“It's difficult to have that be an effective strategy when the president decides to blast away at four women of color,” GOP pollster David Flaherty said of Gardner's efforts to focus on a pro-Colorado agenda.