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Udall rallies Latinos, but leaders fear it's too little too late

Latinos saved Colorado Democrats in 2010. Now Mark Udall is counting on them to do the same for him, but leaders fret he hasn't done enough to win their vote.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, center, flanked by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, right, greets supporters during a campaign stop focusing on Latino-American issues in Denver, Colo. on Nov. 3, 2014.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, center, flanked by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, right, greets supporters during a campaign stop focusing on Latino-American issues in Denver, Colo. on Nov. 3, 2014.

DENVER, Colo. -- Latino voters saved Colorado Democrats in a tough year before and now Senator Mark Udall is counting on them to do the same again in his race against Republican Cory Gardner. Some leaders in the community, however, are worried that the effort is too little, too late, after a campaign that has largely focused on reproductive rights.

On Monday, the incumbent kicked off his final day of campaigning at Metropolitan State University, where dozens of supporters waved “Latinos Con Udall” signs and chanted the candidate’s name. 

"It's amazing how he goes around saying he’s bipartisan. He doesn’t have a bipartisan bone in his body."'

“We are all Americans!” Udall said. “Todos somos Americanos!”

The main topic for the speakers, which included a DREAMer student, former senator and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, and Senator Michael Bennet, was immigration reform. 

“Let’s make tomorrow a statement that this state and this country is going to move forward and embrace all of its citizens,” Udall said. 

Here they had a clear case to make to Latino voters concerned about the issue: Udall supported the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill while House Republicans killed it, then voted to deport DREAMers. Gardner stuck to the standard conservative line on immigration for years before tacking to the center more recently, but he’s still avoided taking a decisive stance on the issue. How could you possibly reward the GOP with a victory after that? 

“They don’t want to have anything like immigration reform, they don’t want the DREAMers to be able to achieve their dreams and that’s really what’s at stake in this election,” Salazar said.

The question among some of Udall’s supporters there, however, was whether Latino voters in the state had actually heard that message.

Val Vigil, who joined Udall at the rally, used to serve in the state legislature with Gardner. When Vigil introduced DREAM Act legislation that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented students, Gardner took the other side, warning that it would “reward illegal behavior” in one hearing. 

“He opposed it every step of the way,” Vigil said. “It’s amazing how he goes around saying he’s bipartisan. He doesn’t have a bipartisan bone in his body.”

As both campaigns agree, immigration is hardly the only issue on Latino voters' minds. Vigil is worried, however, that voters hadn’t seen this part of Gardner’s record highlighted enough. Since his days in the legislature, the congressman has carefully adjusted his tone on immigration, rejecting the Senate’s immigration bill but promising to lead the charge for a still-unidentified alternative that satisfied all sides.

“I don’t think Udall’s called him out on his record and he should,” Vigil said. “We’re doing it on the ground, but not in media.” 

Bennet, now the leader of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, knows how important Hispanic support is to the party. He won 80% of the Latino vote in his upset 2010 victory over Ken Buck, who was dragged down by his hardline stance on immigration enforcement. Bennet’s performance was so impressive that the Democrats’ massive turnout apparatus this year is named the Bannock Street project, after the Denver street that hosted his campaign offices that year.

"The contrast is so stark between the two candidates … I think the people here understand there’s an enormous difference."'

Asked about complaints from supporters like Vigil that immigration had gotten comparatively short shrift this year, Bennet suggested that Gardner’s opposition to immigration reform was so well known that Democrats hardly needed ads to repeat the message. 

“The contrast is so stark between the two candidates on the issue of immigration reform … I think the people here understand there’s an enormous difference,” Bennet told msnbc. “You may be right that it hasn’t been litigated that much, but the distinction could not be clearer.” 

In a memo, Udall campaign manager Adam Dunstone told reporters on Monday that the race was a "dead heat," but that they expected their ground game to pull it out in part because of what they believe is a strong performance with Latino voters. "According to our modeling, Latinos already make up the same share of the electorate that they did in 2010 -- and their percentage of the electorate will continue to grow.," Dunstone wrote. "When all is said and done, Latinos will make up an even larger share of the electorate than they did in 2010."

A spokesman for Udall's campaign, Chris Harris, also pushed back against the idea they had ceded ground with Latinos to Gardner, noting that Udall had gone after his opponent on immigration in debates, broke with Obama in opposing a delay to executive action, and offered dozens of interviews to Spanish media. Like Bennet, Harris said immigration was left out of ads primarily because voters "know he's a huge ally for immigrants," allowing them to focus on other topics like veterans care and education instead.

The ground warriors getting out the Latino vote this year are less confident that’s the case. Patty Kupfer, managing director of America’s Voice, who has spent months leading an ambitious street-by-street program to turn out Latinos, told msnbc that she’d heard the Udall campaign's explanation for its lack of immigration-focused ads. Based on what she’d seen, however, Latino voters were not automatically ready to assume Gardner is anti-immigrant, especially while the congressman bills himself as an ally of Latinos. 

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“The fact that there are people out there who don’t really know what Gardner stands for on immigration is a problem,” Kupfer said. “The whole strategy of the Gardner campaign has been to cover up his record and to use nice talk around immigrants and Latinos. The Udall campaign has not stepped up to counter that.” 

This year they have additional hurdles to overcome as well. President Obama’s approval ratings with Latinos have flagged in some recent surveys after he backtracked on a pledge to enact deportation reforms by the end of the summer. Activists are worried it could depress turnout or create mixed messages as Latino groups simultaneously attack Republicans for killing reform and Obama for delaying executive actions. 

"The whole strategy of the Gardner campaign has been to cover up his record and to use nice talk around immigrants and Latinos."'

Udall told reporters he was “disappointed” with Obama’s decision on Monday and Gutierrez, in “read my lips” fashion, promised the White House would follow through while enunciating every word.

“The. President. Will. Issue. Executive. Orders. Before. Christmas,” Gutierrez said. “Millions of people will be affected by those executive orders.”

Kupfer’s and Vigil’s complaints cut to a broader source of tension between Udall and Democrats. The campaign has focused intensely on painting Gardner as extreme on abortion and reproductive rights, convinced that it’s the silver bullet that will turn women away from the GOP and convince voters of all stripes that he’s from his party’s extreme wing.

 As Election Day grew closer and polls showed Gardner taking a lead thanks to a surprisingly strong performance with women, that strategy started to come in for criticism. In one debate, moderator Lynn Bartels noted that Udall had been dubbed “Mark Uterus” for his relentless focus on abortion. Things reached a boiling point at a Udall event on Monday, where a prominent Democratic donor heckled him mid-speech for his focus on women’s issues.

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“That’s not the only thing you stand for! Jesus Christ!” the donor, Leo Beserra, said according to The Guardian

Gardner’s voting record places him solidly in his party’s conservative wing, but unlike more wild-eyed candidates like Buck and former Congressman Tom Tancredo, the constantly beaming congressman doesn’t look the part. This alone may go a long way to explaining both Kupfer's complaints about Latino voters and Udall's struggles with women.

"If voters like you, it’s hard to convince them otherwise. I think they like Cory."'

“If voters like you, it’s hard to convince them otherwise,” Katy Atkinson, a Colorado Republican consultant, told msnbc. “I think they like Cory.”

With the end in sight, the always upbeat Gardner’s energy levels hit Robin Williams-esque levels as he rallied volunteers at their Greenwood Village campaign office on Monday. 

“We have always said Colorado will be the tip of the spear, the fulcrum of power, the opportunity to change this direction around,” Gardner said, firing out the words so quickly it was almost hard to follow him.

His ads describe him as “a new kind of Republican.” At the campaign office, volunteers distributed mailers omitting his party entirely and touting his work with Democrats like Congressman Gary Peters and his break with Republicans on key votes, like reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. For every issue, it seems he’s picked at least one symbolic vote to give himself some plausible separation from his party. On immigration, he recently broke with the House GOP to oppose a bill that would deport DREAMers despite voting last year for an amendment that would defund the program that grants them temporary protection from removal. On abortion, he disavowed his past support for a state “personhood” measure that would ban abortion and even some birth control, but has insisted that his backing for a federal version is only a general declaration of support for life. 

“Look, Coloradans aren’t red, Coloradans aren’t blue, but they are crystal clear,” Gardner told msnbc. “They want Washington to get the job done and get the heck out of the way.”

The difference between the two camp's mood is stark. Democrats are nervous about a loss and Republicans are giddy at the possibility of a win after ten years of Democratic dominance. Despite the pre-emptive blame game for a Udall defeat, the final polls show the race competitive and early vote returns (the state casts its ballots by mail) are consistent with a close race.