One of the first things that Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) did after officially announcing his candidacy for Colorado’s Senate seat in March was disavow his previous support for the “personhood” cause, the anti-abortion movement to define life as beginning at conception.
While his opponent Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and other Democrats labeled Gardner as a flip-flopper, social conservatives felt a deep betrayal. Gardner had advocated for a personhood amendment to the state’s constitution since 2008.
“Republicans are so thirsty for victory they’re ready to drink saltwater,” Ed Hanks, a personhood activist who lives in Douglas County, a Republican stronghold, said at the time, according to the Denver Post. “Cory Gardner has just renounced the party platform and embraced abortion.”
Months later, the personhood movement is still unhappy with Gardner’s change of heart.
“Cory Gardner is a big disappointment, since he was firmly on our side, and now he’s throwing that away for greater political aspirations,” Jennifer Mason, a spokeswoman for Personhood USA, told the Wall Street Journal late last month.
Why did Gardner do it? The answer is simple, Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, told TPM. He had to. The state’s 2010 personhood initiative lost 71 percent to 29 percent, per the Post. In purple Colorado, where Republicans haven’t won a major statewide race since 2004, GOP candidates must appeal to the middle.
“If he hadn’t, his whole campaign would have been a non-starter,” Masket said. “That’s the position that really would alienate him with all the mainstream voters. It kind of had to be done.”
Some conservatives warned at the time that Gardner had taken a risk by distancing himself from reliably conservative voters. “It was politically stupid for him to do that,” Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, told the Post. “He’s not going to lose all of them. People are pretty ticked by Obamacare, guns and all the other stuff. But Cory needs those votes.”
“I think those folks were pretty annoyed. He was one of the people they could count on,” Masket said of the backlash. “Those people are almost uniformly very conservative Republicans. They’re consistent voters.”
But then there’s the $64,000 question. Will they make Gardner pay for it? They might already have missed their chance, Masket said. Gardner ran unopposed in the GOP primary. Forced to choose between a personhood heretic and Udall, conservatives will still likely back Gardner, Masket said. Lost enthusiasm could be a problem, though. At the moment, Udall maintains a 1-point edge, according to TPM’s PollTracker.
“I don’t think it poses a long-term danger to him. They will be annoyed. If there had been a more competitive primary, it could have been costly,” Masket said. “But there is so much they like about Gardner and so much they despise about Udall. They’re ultimately going to rally to his side.”