Cory Gardner for Veep? Don’t Laugh

by Stuart Rothenberg November 6, 2015 · 9:17 AM EST

Though I took notice of Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s endorsement of Sen. Marco Rubio for president, I didn’t immediately think about Gardner as a possible running mate for Rubio — until a CQ Roll Call colleague dropped that pearl of wisdom in my lap.

But there are plenty of reasons why Gardner needs to be on any Rubio shortlist of possible running mates, even this early in the 2016 election cycle.

In a party full of elected officials who look and sound angry and bitter, the Colorado Republican invariably is cheerful and optimistic. That doesn’t mean that Gardner is happy with the direction of the country or defends the status quo, but it does mean he is amiable and approachable. Not surprisingly, that makes him appealing to many voters, particularly those who are less ideological and less partisan.

Gardner represents Colorado, the fourth-closest state won by Barack Obama in 2012. If the 2016 GOP nominee can carry all of the states won by Mitt Romney, and win the four states won most narrowly by the president — Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado — the Republicans will win the White House.

Colorado isn’t necessarily a must-win state for the GOP in 2016, but if the party’s nominee doesn’t carry it, he or she must carry one or more other states that Obama won more convincingly last time (such as Pennsylvania or Iowa). In other words, after Colorado, the Republican ticket’s path to 270 electoral votes gets more difficult.

There is no guarantee, of course, that Gardner would help Rubio carry Colorado (Al Gore famously failed to carry his home state in 2000, and Romney lost Wisconsin in 2012, even though Paul D. Ryan was on the ticket), but if the overall race is close enough next year, Gardner might just help the GOP carry his Centennial State.

Gardner’s age is something of a mixed bag, obviously.

The Coloradoan will be 42 when Election Day rolls around, making him three years younger than the 45-year old Rubio. Democrats would surely jump on those two men as too inexperienced and ill-prepared to run the country at a time of such international danger and economic uncertainty.

But Bill Clinton was only 46 when he was elected president in 1992, and his running mate, Al Gore, was 44 — hardly older than a Rubio-Gardner team would be. And Barack Obama, who was 47 when elected, had served less time in the Senate than Rubio will have served when the 2016 election takes place. Those facts would give Republicans easy and effective comebacks to the Democratic — and likely media — criticism.

In any case, given the public’s continued desire for change and fatigue with candidates of the past, a Republican ticket that is youthful, upbeat and personally appealing — as Clinton-Gore was in 1992 when Democrats made an explicit argument about generational change — may not be such a bad thing. After all, a Rubio-Gardner team would have plenty of opportunity during the campaign to demonstrate their readiness for higher office.

Both Rubio and Gardner have experience in legislative bodies, but neither has executive experience. It’s difficult to believe that that would be a major problem for most voters.

Neither Obama nor Biden had executive experience before they were elected in 2008, and the same was true for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, the previous successful presidential ticket that included two sitting senators. (Unlike the Democrats, the GOP has never offered voters a presidential nominee and his running mate who were both sitting senators.)

Like Rubio, Gardner is conservative, pragmatic and politically savvy.

In 2011, Gardner received a zero rating from the AFL-CIO and 100 percent from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The next year, he received a 92 percent rating from the American Conservative Union and a 5 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

But Gardner successfully avoided the “extreme” label during his Senate bid, in part because he ran an excellent campaign and took steps to blunt anticipated Democratic attacks. (In an end-of-the-year column, I called Gardner the best candidate of 2014.)

The Colorado senator’s first TV commercial featured him on a windmill farm (noting that he “co-wrote the law to launch our state’s green energy industry”), and his advocacy of over-the-counter birth control pills helped him blunt the usual Democratic attacks during his Senate race that he was “anti-women.” Gardner wrote a Denver Post op-ed supporting the contraceptives proposal in June 2014.

Gardner, who would not have to give up his Senate seat if he runs on the 2016 ticket, isn’t the only good GOP vice presidential choice, and as a white male, he wouldn’t be an ideal running mate for every 2016 presidential hopeful.

The eventual Republican nominee will have plenty to think about in selecting a running mate, and Cory Gardner’s name probably won’t be on the tip of his, or her, tongue. But the Colorado senator has served a combined decade in the Colorado legislature and in Congress, and his assets, and talents, are difficult to ignore.