Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., for his Senate seat, speaks to reporters after meeting with the House Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 24, 2014.
Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Is Colorado the canary in the coal mine?

With new polls showing a GOP surge in Colorado, all eyes are on the Centennial State as a possible bellwether for control of the Senate.

New numbers from respected pollster Quinnipiac shocked political analysts this week when they showed Democratic Sen. Mark Udall trailing GOP challenger Cory Gardner 48-40 among likely voters and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper down 50-40 against Republican Bob Beauprez. A USA Today/Suffolk poll the same week showed Gardner up 1 point over Udall, 43-42.

It’s hard to tell what exactly is happening in the state yet. It’s possible that the numbers, especially Quinnipiac’s, are an outlier. Most recent polls have given Udall a lead, including NBC’s own September survey, which had him up 48-42 over Gardner. Udall’s campaign released its own internal poll in response, which showed Udall up 47-42, and a spokesman told msnbc the numbers have been stable for months. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, while touting the Quinnipiac polls, says its internal polls have shown a “dead heat” through the summer.

Those caveats aside, it’s late enough in the campaign and the news cycle has been so chaotic recently that any sudden change merits some serious attention. 

In additional to its pivotal role in determining control of the Senate, several major national debates are converging on Colorado at once, making it a potential leading indicator of where things might be heading around the country.

One issue that has gotten a shakeup recently is immigration. Senate candidates around the country likely breathed a sigh of relief after President Obama announced he would delay executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections. Except for Colorado, that is, where Latino voters made up 14% of the electorate in 2012.

Pro-immigration activists in Colorado had warned for months that Obama could demoralize Latino and Asian voters if he decided to punt on executive action to halt deportations. Now that he has, Quinnipiac’s poll suggests he might be paying a price – Gardner’s lead is thanks in part to low estimated turnout among Latinos, who make up only 8% of the electorate in their likely voter screen. 

Is this the start of a trend? Patty Kupfer, the Denver-based managing director of immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, was one of the many activist leaders who pressured Obama to follow through on his promises. But she thinks the Quinnipiac poll is out of line with what she has seen since the president’s announcement.

“I do think the delay will make things a bit harder for us to get voters to take this election seriously, but I am positive that there was not such a quick and precipitous decline in likely Latino voters because of it,” Kupfer said. “Our phone banking is so far a pretty small sample still, but we’re hearing interest in voting, though a lot more undecideds on the Senate race than we were expecting.”

There are other areas where Colorado’s polls are likely to attract attention as well. Udall has been running one of the most aggressive campaigns to court women voters in the country, bashing Gardner relentlessly over his past support (since renounced) for a “personhood” referendum that would restrict abortion and even potentially some forms of birth control. Gardner has tried to counter the attacks by running ads explaining his decision to back away from personhood and recently by touting his support for making birth control bills available over the counter. 

Some commentators have also speculated that the recent focus on the terror group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria might give Republicans a shot to rekindle their success with “security moms” nervous about homeland security, a demographic that played a critical role in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Polling evidence is still weak on this front, but if more polls show Gardner moving into a lead, Republicans will be quick to claim success in fighting back the “war on women” meme Democrats have deployed against them so effectively in the Obama era. 

For now, however, it’s still hard to tell whether the latest numbers are an outlier or a canary in the coal mine for Democrats. Quinnipiac’s poll shows Udall with a scant 46-43 advantage over Gardner with women. NBC News/Marist pegged Udall with a 50-35 lead among female voters, albeit with a large number of undecideds, just this month. It’s worth noting pollsters, including Quinnipiac, have often underestimated Democratic support in Colorado, where the party has a strong turnout operation, in recent elections. 

Is Colorado the canary in the coal mine?