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Cory Gardner Takes Helm of NRSC

Colorado freshman is lone new member of Senate GOP leadership team

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner will lead the NRSC for the 2018 campaign cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner will lead the NRSC for the 2018 campaign cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Republicans will have at least one fresh face on their leadership team next year.

First-term Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado was elected to head the Republicans’ campaign arm tasked with growing their slim majority in the Senate.

Gardner will lead the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2018 election cycle, succeeding outgoing Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who was term-limited.

In 2018, Senate Republicans will be defending eight seats, while Democrats have 25 incumbents up for re-election, including two independent senators who caucus with Democrats. Ten of those Democrats will be running in states that President-elect Donald Trump won last week.

Although the 2018 electoral map favors Republicans, historically, the party in the White House has struggled in midterm elections. Democrats will likely use the midterms as a referendum on Trump’s presidency.

“Were going to fight for every seat” Gardner said after Wednesday’s vote.

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Gardner is the only new member on the Senate GOP leadership team that otherwise remains unchanged following elections Wednesday morning.

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky continues on as the GOP leader; John Cornyn of Texas maintains the No. 2 majority whip position, John Thune of South Dakota remains the conference chairman; John Barrasso of Wyoming still heads the Republican Policy Committee; and Roy Blunt of Missouri stays on as the conference vice chairman.

Gardner is a member of the 2014 freshman class that helped Republicans retake the Senate. He and classmate Thom Tillis of North Carolina had discussed co-chairing the NRSC together. After returning home from the campaign trail with Gardner a few weeks ago, Tillis said he phoned Gardner to say he would support him as chairman.

Tillis said he wanted to focus on his own re-election in 2020, since North Carolina is rapidly changing, but he expects to play a role in the NRSC’s finances.

“The campaign gave me a great opportunity to find the kind of working relationship we have,” Tillis said. “It’s going to be a good one.”

Tillis nominated Gardner at the caucus meeting Wednesday morning, and said Tuesday that he expected to highlight Gardner’s experience and political instincts in his pitch.

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Gardner is well-liked, counting among his friends fellow Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“I don’t think they could’ve picked anybody better for that job,” Bennet said. “He’ll work hard and will do a good job.”

Colleagues often point to Gardner’s policy chops and energy. At 42, he is the youngest of the GOP leaders by more than a decade.

“Part of the role of the senatorial committee is bringing a perspective into the Senate leadership,” said Steve Gordon, a veteran Republican operative. “[Gardner] is younger, he brings a different background, different perspective, he’s going to bring that perspective into a leadership and change the perspective of leadership just by his presence.”

Gordon served as Gardner’s political director for his 2014 Senate campaign, where he unseated incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

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That experience of facing an incumbent Democrat in a swing state will be valuable to Republican challengers in 2018, said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP.

“He’ll be able to talk to prospective candidates in a way that somebody who has been in the fight, somebody that took on a very tough incumbent” can, Wadhams said. “He’s been there.”

Wadhams said Gardner will be able to advise candidates on running original, even nonconformist, campaigns. He pointed to Gardner highlighting renewable energy in his Senate campaign even though the issue is usually associated with Democrats.

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Wadhams first met Gardner in 2002, when he was managing the re-election campaign of former Colorado GOP Sen. Wayne Allard. Gardner was a young staffer in Allard’s Washington, D.C., office and joined the campaign.

“He got a really good dose of what a competitive U.S. Senate race is all about,” Wadhams said.

Gardner worked for Allard until 2005, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Colorado House. In 2010, he was elected to the U.S. House, where he served two terms before joining the Senate.

Gardner also has experience running in a state undergoing demographic changes, a challenge for Republicans. More than 20 percent of Coloradans are Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center.

“He’s absolutely as good a retail politician as I’ve ever seen. He’s a vision guy at the same time,” said Gordon, his former political director. “In my opinion, he’s a new kind of Republican that the Republican Party needs in a changing time.”

Gardner’s office did not provide comment ahead of the Wednesday election.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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