Could Colorado lose Democrats the Senate?

Updated
ELDORADO SPRINGS, Colorado – When Sen. Mark Udall tried to climb Mt. Everest in 1996, 60 mile-per-hour winds on the mountain’s north face forced him to turn back.

“The point,” the Colorado Democrat said last week as he walked down the road to the Mesa Trailhead near his home here, “is to come home alive. It doesn’t count if you touch the top of the mountain and you don’t make it back.”

The stakes Udall faces now aren’t life and death–but if he loses his unexpectedly close bid for re-election against Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in November, control of the Senate is all but guaranteed to flip to the GOP. Democrats can only lose a net of five seats to retain control of the chamber; with red state races in Arkansas, Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana all more likely to flip than blue Colorado, a Udall loss could be catastrophic.

“This has always been a tough map from the very beginning,” said Udall’s fellow Democratic Colorado senator, Michael Bennet, who this year is running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We’ve known it was going to be a tough map.”

But Udall’s race in what has been an increasingly Democratic state has been creeping closer and closer as the months have worn on. President Obama is becoming more unpopular. The genial, mild-mannered Gardner (his hobby: restoring antique furniture) is a contrast with the firebrand conservatives who ran unsuccessfully for Senate and governor in the state in 2010, and national Republicans considered it a coup when they convinced Gardner to jump into the race. (It relegated Ken Buck, the erstwhile 2010 Senate nominee who lost to Bennet, to running for the House.)

“A big smile’s a nice thing, I think we hall have big smiles, but your record matters, your actions matter.”
To beat Gardner, Udall has been almost singularly focused on the Republican’s support for hard line positions on abortion and contraception. Nearly half of Udall’s ads have attacked Gardner for, among other things, supporting a state “personhood” initiative that could criminalize many forms of birth control.

“A big smile’s a nice thing, I think we hall have big smiles, but your record matters, your actions matter,” Udall told msnbc. “His positions would move us backwards.”

Gardner has since reversed his stance on the state personhood measure.  But his name is still on a very similar federal law.

“There is no federal personhood bill - they’re two different pieces of legsiatlion. And I understand Sen. Udall he wants to run away from the failed economy,” Garnder said when asked about the Life at Conception Act, which Personhood USA, which supports such initiatives around the country, says is in fact a federal personhood measure.

Asked to identify the difference between Colorado’s state initiative and the nationwide version, Gardner focused on procedural differences, not policy: “Again, you’re talking about a bill that’s at the state level that was at the amendment to the constitution. They’re different from a procedural posture, they’re different language.”

Gardner’s discomfort crystallizes what the race is really about: women, particularly unmarried women who live in Denver and its surrounding suburbs. Younger, single voters tend to participate less in midterm elections than in presidential contests. With his focus on reproductive health care, Udall is counting on a turnout boost among young women; Gardner’s challenge is convincing those women that they should be focused on other issues.

His approach so far is twofold: He’s trying to tie Udall to Obama, and he’s going after the Udall family for its long history in politics. Mark Udall’s father, Mo Udall, was a near-legendary Democratic senator from Arizona who made a short-lived run for president in 1976.

“Eighteen years in politics and he’s got two cousins who are senators too. Mark Udall’s dad even ran for president,” a new Gardner ad declares. Udall’s two cousins are Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mike Lee of Utah.

Udall took umbrage at the ad, demanding it be taken down.

No way, Gardner said.

“I’m running against a person who has a Wikipedia page for his political dynasty…”
“I’m running against a person who has a Wikipedia name–a Wikipedia page–for his political dynasty that his family runs,” Gardner said in an interview.

Gardner also insists that his rival is much closer to Obama than he tries to claim; during a recent debate, Gardner supporters hooted and laughed when Udall declared, “Let me tell you, the White House when they look down the front lawn the last person they want to see coming is me.”

Udall says he has stood up to Obama on a range of issues, including abuses at the CIA and National Security Agency. Still, he is one of the only lawmakers to ever play golf with the president.

“Over the last six months I’ve been a thorn in their side. On the NSA, on the VA [Veterans Affairs], on the CIA, they haven’t always been happy to take my phone calls over there,” Udall said.

What’s not clear at this point, though, is whether Udall or Gardner will be able to break the race out of the pattern it’s been stuck in for months. And observers are also raising questions about the governor’s race also taking place in the state and how it will affect the Senate contest – Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has dropped in polls in recent weeks amid controversies over the death penalty and guns.

At particular issue: Hickenlooper’s reprieve for Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of killing four people in a shooting rampage at a Chuck E. Cheese where he worked. In an interview with CNN, Hickenlooper suggested that he might grant full clemency to Dunlap–an idea that drew a rebuke even from Udall.
“No,” Udall said when asked if he believed Dunlap should be granted clemency.

Hickenlooper’s challenges could affect the makeup of the midterm electorate in Colorado, which is Udall’s other critical hurdle. Democrats are quick to insist that their operation in the state is unparalleled. Udall aides say their data is so good that they are targeting not just counties or ZIP codes but individual voters. Nationally, the Democratic turnout operation is called the Bannock Street Project, after the Denver roadway where Bennet had his headquarters in 2010 and won in a strongly Republican year.

“Forty days out we’ve got a ground game here that we’ve never seen in an off-year election,” Bennet said of the 2014 effort. “Three times better than when I ran.”

Another potential wrench for Democrats? Pot. When Obama won the state by  5 points in 2012, an initiative to legalize marijuana was on the ballot, possibly lifting participation among younger, Democratic-leaning voters. There’s no comparable measure ballot this time. Udall says that he’s trying to help the new marijuana industry get access to banking services, but that’s not a major issue in the race.

As for the candidates themselves? Both say they’ve stayed away.

“No, I haven’t. No. No,” Gardner insisted when asked if he’d consumed any legal marijuana.

Said Udall: “I have not.” 

Abortion, Colorado and Contraception

Could Colorado lose Democrats the Senate?

Updated