WASHINGTON – Sen. Cory Gardner faces one of the tougher political predicaments of any Republican deciding how to vote on the GOP health-care bill.
The Colorado Republican, a rising star who defeated a Democratic incumbent in 2014, leads the campaign committee responsible for protecting and expanding the GOP majority. That makes him a close ally of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is pressing every Republican to support an unpopular proposal barreling toward a vote by the end of next week.
Gardner, 42, holds a leadership post that normally comes with an expectation of loyalty. But he has remained below the radar, both back home and inside the Capitol, declining to take a position on legislation that would replace portions of the Affordable Care Act.
For starters, he has home-state interests that make this one of the more difficult roll calls of his career. Colorado’s popular Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, accepted the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid funding – extending medical coverage to more than 400,000 state residents. He has become a leading spokesman against the Republican plan to dramatically cut back those federal funds for the 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) that chose that option.
Gardner also has to concern himself with his own reelection in 2020, a presidential cycle with a different political climate than his first Senate race in one of the nation’s marquee swing states, when he campaigned heavily for “repeal and replace.”
All of it makes Gardner’s a classic case of the inside-outside dilemma. He can vote for the bill and earn points in Washington, or he can cast a vote that would likely be an easier sell to voters back home.
Just don’t try to get an answer now on which way Gardner will go.
On Tuesday, he appeared with McConnell’s leadership team at the weekly news conference. After listening to several others discuss their derisive views of “Obamacare,” Gardner avoided talk of the most pressing issue of the day. Instead, he bemoaned Democratic delay tactics on President Trump’s nominees and applauded the decision to stay in session a few extra weeks to confirm more sub-Cabinet and judiciary positions.
“It’s critically important that we do the job the American people sent us here today,” Gardner said.
It was the first time Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had spoken at the weekly Tuesday leadership press event in more than a month. The last time, on June 6, while some GOP leaders talked about health care, Gardner chose to speak about developing a strategy to combat Islamic State terrorists.
Aides to Gardner, who declined to talk for this story, said that he is still looking over the legislation and keeping his powder dry until McConnell releases more revisions.
“Senator Gardner is still reviewing the legislation as there will likely be some changes made to the discussion draft that was released a few weeks ago,” Casey Contres, a spokesman, said in an email. “In regards to his leadership role in the Senate, it never impacts how he votes for Colorado, period.”
Some Democrats have accused Gardner of ducking the issue. AARP is airing an emotional radio ad against him and four other Republicans, urging them to oppose the legislation.
One Democrat who has declined to criticize Gardner is Sen. Michael F. Bennet, Colo., his home-state colleague who understands the competing political pressures. In 2014, Bennet served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the counterpart to the post that Gardner how holds for Republicans.
Bennet said that the pressure to remain loyal is real, but not from colleagues. It comes from the donors who fund these multimillion-dollar campaigns in the battleground states.
“You feel the pressure from people that are donating to the committee, who as a general matter are expecting consistency, understandably, with the leadership, and so I think that pressure builds,” he said.
Despite Bennet’s leading role opposing Gardner in 2014, the duo have worked out one of the better relationships among same-state senators. Bennet has consistently declined to criticize Gardner’s reluctance to take a position on the health bill.
Those who know Gardner, who was a two-term member of the House before his Senate run, believe he is adhering to an approach that John A. Boehner used to advise when he was the House speaker: “Never say what you’ll never do.”
This means that you keep your head down, don’t negotiate through the media and try to work behind the scenes to shape the legislation in your direction. When the time comes, you cast your vote.
In one of Gardner’s only public moves, back in February, he joined three other Republicans from states that accepted Medicaid expansion to declare their opposition to how the initial House draft would quickly eliminate that funding.
The draft, they wrote, “does not provide stability and certainty for individuals and families in Medicaid expansion programs or the necessary flexibility for states.”
The most recent Senate Republican proposal offers a longer wind-down, eventually ending up with a near 50-50 split between federal and state funding for the working poor who had become newly eligible for Medicaid coverage under the ACA. Under the ACA, Washington picks up the entire tab, with the figure phasing down to 90 percent by 2020 – a huge handout to the states expected to approach $1 trillion over the next decade.
Some Republicans have embraced the cost-splitting proposal as a suitable plan. Others have recoiled at estimates that it would still leave 22 million fewer people without insurance than under the current law.
“You have started to see positive directions from the bill,” Gardner said during a radio interview back in Colorado over the Fourth of July recess.
This has left the impression in some quarters that he will side with McConnell, following through on many pledges – and previous votes – to repeal the ACA.
It’s a balancing act that some Democrats understand.
“I think the pressures are higher in some ways,” Bennet said, “but the answer is always the same, that you’ve got to put your state first.”