Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is in an interesting predicament. There are those in the cannabis industry who say he should be given a chance this November to finish what he started around cannabis banking reform. Others say he hasn’t done anything so far for the industry, and therefore ask why he should be re-elected.
Gardner, a conservative from the rural Colorado town of Yuma, is facing his most difficult campaign of his career, even for an experienced politician. He is up against re-election in a state whose electorate just two years ago backed all Democrats for statewide offices in a shift to the left. After six years in the Senate, Gardner is asking Coloradans for a second term while analysts frame him as one of the most endangered Republicans in the country. Part of his campaign for re-election rests in convincing voters that he is a moderate for his support of marijuana banking, an issue that he has spearheaded in the Senate.
Some lobbyists say that losing Gardner would be to the industry’s detriment, especially if Republicans maintain control of the Senate. They argue that he is working hard behind the scenes to get cannabis banking language passed during the current session.
“In lobbying, just because you don’t get something on the first couple tries doesn’t mean you stop,” Melissa Kuipers Blake of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, who lobbies for the Cannabis Trade Federation and is close with Gardner, recently told Politico. “Big movements like this take time, and they need champions that are credible.”
Democrats, though, are asking what Gardner has actually achieved during his six years in Washington. The party’s likely nominee, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, has accused Gardner of being all talk and no action.
Hickenlooper’s problem is that his history with legalization as governor is tepid at best. “It’s this ironic situation where Cory Gardner, the Republican—and a conservative—actually put his money where his mouth is, and brought the issue forward,” said Peter Marcus, communications director for Boulder, Colo.-based dispensary chain Terrapin Care Station, and a former reporter who covered Colorado politics for more than a decade. “Whereas John Hickenlooper doesn’t have a lot to rest on in terms of doing much for the industry.”
Banking access, however, faces a serious uphill battle as part of a coronavirus relief package, as evidenced by the derision it has received from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And even if it passes, some political strategists question if it will be enough to help Gardner’s campaign, since the latest polling shows him trailing Hickenlooper by double digits.
Gardner is buoyed by Hickenlooper’s above-mentioned lackluster history with the industry. The former Colorado governor opposed legalization, quipping when voters passed the issue, “Don’t break out the Cheetos and Goldfish yet.” Hickenlooper had a chance as a Democrat to embrace the issue and turn it into a campaign platform. Instead, he balked at it. Hickenlooper went on to have a dismal showing on the national stage in his race for president.
In contrast, when Jared Polis ran to replace Hickenlooper as governor, he embraced the industry, using its network of employees and customers to reach a wider audience. Polis went on to defeat his Republican opponent, Walker Stapleton, by 11 points, a relatively historic vote for a Democrat in a gubernatorial race resting in what is still a purple state.
To Hickenlooper’s credit, he didn’t derail the cannabis industry in Colorado. Despite his opposition, he put together a task force to implement legalization, which allowed Colorado to usher in a new post-prohibition era. Colorado ultimately went on to lead the nation in the legalization experiment and certain health and safety standards imposed by Hickenlooper, including restrictions on pesticides, would later insulate the industry from a backlash to the vape crisis.
Still, Gardner is traveling a riskier road as a conservative embracing cannabis banking reform, and he has stood up to his party in his support for change. In many ways, he has walked the talk. But without any actual results, it’s fair to ask, “Is this just a political stunt?” We suppose voters will decide that this fall.