As the weeks wore on, polls showed Udall in an increasingly perilous position. Several of the GOP candidates — Ken Buck, state Rep. Amy Stephens and state Sen. Owen Hill — were within striking distance of the senator. But there was one big problem: Those candidates had a fraction of Udall’s campaign money, no small matter in a race that could cost each candidate north of $13 million.
The one person who could make up that financial ground for Republicans was Gardner.
In January, Gardner told NRSC officials he was having second thoughts. That prompted the committee to commission a poll that later showed the congressman had a good shot at winning. Gardner decided he wanted in the race — but not if it meant a bloody primary.
He first approached his biggest roadblock: Buck. The Weld County district attorney had battled with the NRSC in 2010. But the two sides had smoothed things over during the past year, and Buck had a friendly relationship with Gardner.
At a meeting with Buck at a Cracker Barrel just north of Denver, Gardner dropped the bombshell: He was seriously thinking about jumping in the race, and he did not want to battle Buck in a bruising primary. For days after that meeting, Buck mulled his options before encouraging Gardner to take the plunge, nodding to the congressman’s stronger polling and fundraising numbers. Buck even entertained sitting out the midterm election season altogether if it would help Gardner in the primary.
Instead, Buck opted to run in a contested primary for Gardner’s House seat. He called up the congressman and asked for an endorsement for his House seat, something Buck said Gardner was “enthusiastic” in offering. The two denied any quid pro quo.
The political horse-trading wasn’t over. Stephens, who was working aggressively to get volunteers to sign her petition in order to register for the primary ballot, was on her way to a women’s fundraiser in Denver when Gardner called and asked to meet with her right away. The two met that evening at a local restaurant. Gardner said he was considering jumping into the race, and asked her if she’d help clear the field. But she had campaign debt to pay off, which Gardner said he’d help settle.
The next day, Stephens called up Gardner and told her she was out of the race.
The final obstacle was Hill, a 32-year-old state senator who refused to be part of what he called a “backroom” deal and told Gardner his candidacy would be a “bad idea.” But days after Gardner announced his bid, Hill dropped out, after some of his supporters suggested he step aside.
“People I think were shocked that something like this could happen,” said Stephens, given the divisions still roiling the GOP. “I looked at it and thought: ‘Do we want the Senate or not? I thought can Cory gets us there? Yes. Then that has to be the goal.”
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