Political realities set in for Cory Gardner after failed healthcare vote

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s approach last week to the failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act underscored his dual role as both a member of Senate Republican leadership and a politician worried about his own re-election prospects.

For the past month, the first-term Republican wouldn’t take a concrete position on any of the GOP plans to undo the 2010 health care law — only to back every major Republican proposal last week to come up for a vote, from repeal-and-replace to repeal-and-delay.

On one level, it’s not surprising: Gardner ran for Senate in 2014 on a pledge to dismantle the ACA and, as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he’s close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that his GOP colleagues — most of whom want to unwind the ACA — get re-elected in 2018.

“I am committed to reforming our nation’s broken health care system, and I’ll continue to work to bring relief to Coloradans being hurt by the negative impacts of Obamacare,” Gardner said after the repeal effort collapsed early Friday.

But the way the fight played out — from his own wavering to the Senate’s rushed, overnight vote — leaves Gardner exposed back in Colorado, a swing state with an active conservative base but one where surveys have shown a greater desire to fix the ACA rather than repeal it.

Now he’s on the record with several votes that are certain to become fodder for liberal and Democratic ads with no immediate results to counteract them — although those same votes could insulate him somewhat from conservative criticism.

“(Last) week, after months of ducking and dodging the public on his health care position, Cory Gardner did exactly what we expected — he voted to take health care away from millions to pay for tax cuts for millionaires,” said Morgan Carroll, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party.

Early in the legislative process, Gardner raised concerns about the speed with which some Republicans wanted to unravel the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, which has provided coverage to more than 400,000 Coloradans and dramatically reduced the number of residents without health insurance.

As the debate wore on, however, Gardner spoke less frequently about that worry and later voted for a plan that would sweep away much of the ACA — including the Medicaid expansion — and give Congress two years to replace the bulk of President Barack’s Obama signature legislation.

That vote followed weeks of noncommittal answers from Gardner on what he planned to do, even though both Democratic and Republican operatives said they expected that Gardner would support whatever major piece of legislation GOP leaders wanted to pass.

Notably, he told The Denver Post late Thursday that he still hadn’t made up his mind on the so-called “skinny repeal” that Senate Republicans fell short of passing hours later.

“I haven’t even had a chance to read it yet,” Gardner said in a brief interview.

Speaking more broadly about the legislation — which was pitched with the goal of initiating health care negotiations with the House — he added: “If this gets us into a process that gets to repeal and putting in something in place of the Affordable Care Act, then I think a lot of members, including myself, have to consider it — knowing that there is a lot of debate that we have to go through, a lot of amendments that we have to see and this whole thing can change.”

He added: “That’s why I can’t commit to anything simply because I haven’t seen the final product.”

Colorado is divided almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and independents, but there recently have been signs of broad support for the ACA.

A late April poll of Colorado voters found that 60 percent of them wanted to keep or fix the ACA; a March poll pegged that figure at 54 percent.

The sentiment puts Gardner in a bind, as it pits that view — reinforced by protests from an energized left — against a Republican base that wants him to keep his promise of repealing Obamacare.

“Every partisan officeholder faces some kind of delicate balance,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. Yet Gardner, because of how narrowly he won his 2014 race in a year that favored Republican candidates, could have it even tougher, he added.

To stay in office, Gardner needs to appeal to Colorado centrists — especially considering he would share the 2020 ballot with President Donald Trump, who lost Colorado to Hillary Clinton.

On the other hand, Republican voters may punish Gardner if he doesn’t hew to conservative principles. He also faces the prospect of dealing with GOP voters frustrated with the results from Washington.

“We have elected a group of individuals who don’t have the capabilities to manage or run a Dairy Queen, let alone guide, advise and run the world’s largest capitalistic society and business,” wrote Robert Blaha, who served as chairman of Trump’s Colorado campaign.

Blaha didn’t target Gardner specifically but took issue with the whole of the Republican-controlled Congress.

“When confronted with tough realities (like having to make decisions about health care), they stick their finger in the wind hoping the breeze is not too intense,” he wrote. “Spineless whiners, they quiver at the thought of having to make a decision and stand for what they so boldly pounded their chests about.”