CO SEN

Colorado Senate Moves From Toss Up to Lean Democrat

Jessica Taylor
September 23, 2020

With a Supreme Court nominee now all but certain to be confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate this year (either before or after the election), it looks like there will only be two defections from Republican ranks — Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of the most endangered incumbents up this fall, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. 

Collins is one of two Republicans up this cycle representing states that President Trump lost. The other senator, Cory Gardner in Colorado, announced Monday he will back moving forward with a nominee — a change in the view he held in 2016, saying that the "next election is too soon." (Scalia, of course, died 9 months before election day, and almost every Republican has had a similar change of heart now that they control both the White House and the Senate). 

To be sure, Gardner was one of the most endangered incumbents even before he staked out this controversial position that will surely be at odds with many Colorado voters. He represents the state that Trump lost by the biggest margin (five-points) of any Republican up in 2020, and that gap is expected to widen in November. The Centennial State has been steadily trending toward Democrats the past two cycles. In 2018, Democrat Jared Polis won the gubernatorial race by more than 10 points, and moderate Republican Rep. Mike Coffman lost re-election in the fast-growing Denver suburbs by 11 points. 

And we had been preparing to move this race into a more competitive column very soon, even before Justice Ginsburg's death. But we use both qualitative and quantitative analysis to determine our ratings. We've had concerns about the weaknesses former Gov. John Hickenlooper has shown as a candidate, including how he handled ethics complaints against him earlier this year. While the popular two-term governor, fresh off a quixotic run for president, was wooed into the race and was initially seen as a strong recruit, he has not proved much to be that. 

Gardner, coming off a turn as the NRSC chairman, was running the stronger race, even if he started at a strategic disadvantage given the partisan changes in the state. In fact, he's narrowly outspent Hickenlooper so far on ads, and Republican groups added in have combined to spend almost $4 million more than Hickenlooper and his Democratic allies. While Hickenlooper has outraised Gardner so far this year too, it's not been by the massive, lopsided sums we've seen in other core competitive contests. 



In the past we have been hesitant to move incumbents out of Toss Up unless there are extenuating circumstances. We have for two incumbents so far this cycle. First, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama remains the heavy underdog in a state that Trump won in 2016 by 28 points. We now rate that contest as Lean Republican, with former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville favored to win. Then, in July, we moved Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally to the Lean Democrat column — who was appointed to this seat after losing a race for the same position just two years ago — after consistently trailing Democrat Mark Kelly. 

There has been a dearth of quality public polling in Colorado too. But in talking with sources privately, Democrats have never had this race very close, often showing a low double-digit gap that has since closed to high single digits. Still, Hickenlooper has retained the edge. And several Republicans who are monitoring the race closely who may have initially hoped that Gardner could outperform the president enough to win now seriously doubt that is the case. 

Gardner has also been pointing to local achievements to subtly separate himself from Trump, including the Great American Outdoors Act and securing the Bureau of Land Management's headquarters to Colorado. But now, his decision to align with Trump and the GOP majority is sure to drown out any choruses of bipartisanship he'll point to, with just over 40 days until Election Day. 

"Cory is a smart guy and managed to weave his way through this race, but he was already in more than enough trouble," Colorado nonpartisan pollster Floyd Ciruli told me. "No poll indicates that it's closer than 5 points and that Trump is closer than 10. If Trump is losing by that much, no senator is going to survive it." 

Ciruli also observed that unaffiliated voters in the state — the largest voting bloc but one that increasingly leans Democratic — will be unlikely to give Gardner a pass on his changing positions on a Supreme Court vacancy from four years ago. Plus, now the fight brings Senate Majority Mitch McConnell more clearly into the race. 

"The two most unpopular individuals to moderates, liberals and unaffiliated voters in the state are Trump and Mitch McConnell," Ciruli said. 

Gardner's allies privately argue that if a voter, especially women, was already motivated over abortion, they probably weren't getting those votes anyway. The irony here, of course, is that in Gardner's 2014 defeat of Mark Udall, the Democratic senator was criticized for campaigning too hard on abortion and birth control, leading to his being even derided as "Mark Uterus." Women didn't show up at high levels six years ago, but that's unlikely to be repeated this year. 

Gardner's vote, though, may well seal his fate, even if it was probably heading toward a loss anyway. It's reminiscent of the vote North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp cast against Kavanaugh's confirmation in 2018. Despite her best efforts to overcome her state's partisan lean, the trendline was already moving against her even before that vote. Instead, as my predecessor Jennifer Duffy wrote at the time, it was likely the "final blow." 

Colorado Senate now moves from Toss Up to Lean Democrat. This means we see two losses forming for Republicans and one for Democrats, giving the later a net of one — two shy of the majority. The next which may shift is Collins's race, despite her breaking with her party on a new justice, as we explained yesterday, but we want to see fresh data after Ginsburg's death before making a decision. That would leave North Carolina and Iowa as the likeliest tipping point states — and several others still in danger for the GOP that continues to imperil their slim majority. 

Image Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski