A Democratic strategist in Colorado I spoke to liked him to an adult version of Bob’s Big Boy, another to an actor in an Orbitz Gum commercial. You get the idea. But you really have to experience it to feel the full effect. As Democrats were getting pummeled on Election Night, it occurred to me that Gardner is the human counterpoint to Barack Obama’s whiny, sullen resignation. That surely accounted for his surprisingly easy win.

Until now, Colorado Republicans have had a miserable decade, as the state turned from red to blue and candidate after candidate lost. Gardner’s win is notable not just because it helped push the Senate into the Republican column, but because it showed how a flawed party could heal itself and do so pretty quickly. As Gardner was about to deliver his victory speech at the GOP election night headquarters at the Denver Hyatt, I ran into Ryan Call, the state GOP chairman. I asked him what he thought Gardner’s win signified and his answer was a good one. “What this means most is that the quality of the candidate matters,” he said. “His positive, reform-minded agenda, disciplined campaign, and candidate record are what inspired confidence among Colorado voters, and we hope that his leadership will set the model not just for Colorado but for the nation.”

But it’s worth dwelling for a moment on how forcefully Gardner broke with key elements of the current conservative agenda in order to win. He flip-flopped on the state “personhood” initiative he’d twice supported in the past (it lost, by the way). To blunt Udall’s claim that he would outlaw birth control, Gardner cut an ad calling for birth control pills to be sold over the counter. Other Republicans copied him. When you listened to him, he sounded like a moderate. Plenty of moderate voters evidently agreed.