Clear blue skies and rotating wind turbines dominate the scene. Cory Gardner, then campaigning to be Colorado’s next senator in 2014, steps into the frame. “So what’s a Republican like me doing at a wind farm?” he asks in the campaign ad.
Sen. Gardner, R-Colo., won that election. Perhaps in part because he leaned into his history of conservation work. Gardner, who is now up for re-election in 2020, ran on what was considered a fairly progressive climate and conservation platform for a Republican senator. His renewable energy and pro-environment television ad from 2014 is an example of that.
“I look at renewable energy not only as the right thing to do and better for the environment but also as a market opportunity,” Gardner said this month in an interview with The Durango Herald.
Since Gardner strolled between wind turbines in 2014, he has continued to emphasize his environmental record. He considers his work on the Land and Water Conservation Fund as one of his finest legislative accomplishments, epitomizing his environmental work. His website highlights legislation he’s introduced to clean up abandoned mines and his work as the chairman of the Senate Energy and Resources Subcommittee on Energy.
Some science and conservation groups agree. Gardner was recognized in 2017 by the Consortium of Social Science Associations for his bipartisan work. Yet, a mild backlash ensued when the American Geophysical Union awarded Gardner its 2018 presidential citation for his actions to increase science opportunities for women and minorities. Almost 400 members of the AGU signed an open letter criticizing the decision. In part, they felt Gardner supported legislation and political appointees that did nothing to help the environment. The letter warned against policymakers who “pick and choose scientific facts that serve their political agendas.”
Voting record under microscopeAs Gardner gears up for his 2020 re-election campaign, his voting record is being scrutinized by environmental groups demanding actions that match his words.
In early March, Gardner, along with fellow GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, announced the formation of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus. The caucus, led by Gardner and Graham, is advocating for “market-based approaches” to solve environmental problems. Gardner said he supports the market-driven climate measures, in-part because he’s “someone who believes in the free market.”
The caucus was in the planning stages for the past year, according to Gardner. Yet, the announcement came when Democrats were picking up momentum around climate change policies, like the Green New Deal. The deal, initially rolled-out by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, has been criticized by many Republicans as financially impractical.
When discussing his Roosevelt Conservation Caucus, Gardner said, “There are people who wish to destroy the economy in pursuit of their goals, and I just don’t think that’s right.”
Gardner echoed this message on Tuesday when he voted against the Green New Deal. While he said climate change is human induced and action needs to be taken, he did not believe the Democrat-backed plan was the solution.
“This Green New Deal, if enacted, would kill hundreds of thousands of real jobs, cost the American people trillions of dollars and gut our transportation and agricultural economies here in Colorado,” Gardner said in a statement after the vote.
Gardner has championed the Land Water and Conservation Fund throughout his time in Congress, calling it a “good mix of conservation and energy development.” Gardner said the LWCF is a program that “benefits the state, it benefits the people of this country, and it’s something that shows our commitment to conservation.” Colorado has seen roughly $260 million return to the state through the LWCF, Gardner said.
Rhetoric vs. recordWhile Gardner and his supporters point to his work getting the LWCF permanently reauthorized in February, not everyone is satisfied with Gardner’s conservation and environmental record. Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, a nonprofit whose mission is to elect “conservation-minded policymakers,” expressed concerns over Gardner’s voting history.
“There’s a world of difference between his rhetoric and his record,” Nordini said last week, even referencing his 2014 renewable energy campaign ad. “We know that Colorado voters consistently are pro-conservation voters,” Nordini said.
Nordini said a detailed look at Gardner’s voting record shows “it doesn’t support Colorado values.” For example, many Coloradans expressed concern over Gardner’s support of Andrew Wheeler as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, including Nordini who considered it one of the low points of Gardner’s voting history.
Gardner acknowledged some in Colorado were opposed to Wheeler’s nomination because of his coal background. But Gardner said his “yes” vote on Wheeler was an example of his support for an “all-of-the-above energy plan.” The plan, which refers to a strategy President Donald Trump discussed in his 2019 State of the Union address, includes energy development beyond fossil fuels. But many critics say coal still gets top billing.
Gardner has also stood behind the confirmation of Acting Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist nominated by Trump for permanent appointment. Bernhardt has faced criticism for heading an agency whose purpose is to regulate the very oil and gas interests he once represented. Bernhardt, a native Coloradan, was introduced at his confirmation hearing on March 28 by Gardner. They have known each other for over two decades, according to the senator.
At one point, Gardner defended the secretary from questions by a Democratic senator. “I think there’s an absolute double standard being applied here,” Gardner said during the hearing. According to Gardner, the experience of former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell as an outdoor industry executive and a petroleum engineer had been applauded by Democrats while Bernhardt’s was being called into question.
The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group, has also given Gardner a lifetime score of 10 percent on conservation and climate change issues. When asked about his ranking from the LCV, Gardner shrugged it off. “They’re going to be partisan and they’re going to be political,” he said.
“If people are interested in bipartisanship, if people are interested in actual results, that’s what I’m interested in,” Gardner said. “If they’re just interested in political attacks, they can go somewhere else.”
Fifth-most bipartisan senatorGardner has received traction recently as one of the more bipartisan representatives serving in Congress. The Lugar Center, a nonpartisan research nonprofit, ranked Gardner as the fifth-most bipartisan senator. He rose three slots from his ranking in 2017.
The rating, which is based on sponsorships and co-sponsorships, is in its fifth release. Jamie Spitz, an assistant policy director with the Lugar Center, acknowledged the report did not track whether the bills passed but looked to see how often legislators worked across the aisle when a bill was introduced.
In analyzing the data, Spitz said that Gardner jumped onto a lot of bipartisan bills. “He was very active in his co-sponsorship with Democratic bills,” Spitz said last week. “He was also proactive in getting Democratic co-sponsorship with Republican bills he introduced.”
In a statement after the report’s release, Gardner said: “Coloradans expect their legislators to work across party lines on behalf of the state and that is exactly what I have done throughout my time in the Senate.”
The annual ranking does not equate bipartisanship with centrism, Spitz said. “You can be conservative and still work across the aisle in order to be an effective legislator,” he said. “Like in Cory Gardner’s case.”
One of the most vulnerable senatorsIn a divisive political climate that sees the two parties deeply divided on issues like climate change and immigration, the Lugar Center rankings offered hope. The report found this was the first year bipartisanship has been above-average, “despite a very rancorous political scene,” Spitz said.
In fact, a lot of last year’s bipartisanship was driven by Republican senators working across the aisle, he said.
In analyzing the data, Spitz offered a possible explanation: “We have a theory that this is due to a recognition of their election vulnerability. They’re unwilling to go against the Trump base publicly, but they’re quietly signing on to Democratic bills to cover themselves in the general election.”
Up for re-election next year, Gardner is considered one of the most vulnerable senators in 2020, according to recent coverage by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate and RollCall, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper covering Congress.
Gardner is one of two Republican senators facing re-election in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. (Susan Collins of Maine is the second.) Unlike when he was elected in 2015, Gardner is running in a state that has turned blue. Last year, Democrats maintained the Colorado governorship, and they now control both the state Senate and the state House.
All of those factors could potentially make Gardner’s re-election tougher. Yet, he remains optimistic.
“I believe in solutions. I don’t just want to sit back and take partisan shots,” Gardner said. “I actually think it’s worth it to get in the game and to have results. And I think we’ve been able to show that.”
Liz Weber is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.