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Colorado Senate Race a Petri Dish for Both Parties

Colorado Senate Race a Petri Dish for Both Parties

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 22, 2014

There is perhaps no other state this election cycle that better reflects the lessons learned by both parties over the past four years than Colorado.

In 2010, Republicans discovered the hard way that a bad candidate who says impolitic things can squander a winnable Senate race in even the most favorable of climates. And Democrats learned they could overcome discouraging odds with a playbook centered on the women’s vote (highlighting abortion and contraception) and spotlighting an “extremist” opponent.

The Democrat, Michael Bennet, went on to defeat Republican Ken Buck by one percentage point, creating the only bright spot in a dismal midterm year for his party. Four years later, in the race between incumbent Mark Udall and Republican Cory Gardner, Democrats are employing the same strategy, only this time even better financed and waged with more intensity.

Since 2010, Republicans have gotten an education of their own, and this time nominated a candidate who is likeable, not prone to major gaffes, and open to moderating stances to fit a more libertarian-minded electorate. For Democrats, this means a more challenging dynamic in Take 2. Though the old strategy worked four years ago, they risk overplaying their hand this time.

Gardner entered the race with a significant liability: support for a state ballot measure that would define personhood as beginning at conception, thus rendering abortion and some forms of birth control illegal. Soon after entering the race, he withdrew his backing of the measure (though he kept his name on a similar bill in the U.S. House), which is a perennial loser in the state. But since the moment Gardner announced his candidacy, Democrats inside and outside of Colorado have hammered him on that original stance.

Nonetheless, the GOP challenger has been leading in every poll since mid-September. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows him up 3.8 points. (By comparison, Ken Buck led by three points up until Election Day 2010.)

But what is striking about Gardner’s small lead in the polls is his standing among women -- and men. A survey released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling (D) found Udall up four points among women. In a Quinnipiac University poll and a CNN survey, Udall leads Gardner among women by nine points. Meanwhile, the gender gap among men appears to benefit Gardner. CNN shows him leading by 20 points among this group. Quinnipiac finds him with a 19-point lead and PPP shows an 11-point advantage. (According to exit polling in 2010, Bennet led by 17 points among women.)

These polls come after nearly seven months of attack ads on Gardner’s personhood record. Those hits have had an impact: Gardner has spent precious airtime (and the money to purchase it) defending himself against the attacks. And more recently, he announced his support for making birth control pills available without a prescription. But overall he has shown resiliency, according to public polls, while Udall’s favorability ratings have taken hits.

“Mark Udall is probably one of the nicest guys you can find in politics. Yet that has not come through in this campaign. A very dour, unpleasant, and tired incumbent has been portrayed on TV,” says Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican Party chairman. “Voters have decided this guy is angry and mean and all he wants to talk about is abortion.”

The Udall campaign rejects the notion of a single-issue campaign, noting its focus on the economy, the NSA and spying, and environmental issues especially important to Colorado. But the campaign also doesn’t regret the contraception play.

“These are economic issues, fundamental freedom issues over who has say over some very personal choices,” says Chris Harris, Udall’s campaign spokesman. “If people want to discount those, so be it, but these issues are critically important to millions of Coloradans.” Harris argues that Gardner has spent his career backing issues like personhood and opposing abortion: “He’s the one that did it; we’re just telling people about it.”

Udall’s ads reflect that sentiment. In one spot, the first-term senator stands before a gorgeous and green Colorado backdrop. “How is it we are still debating a woman’s access to abortion or birth control? For most of us, those debates got settled by the last generation,” he says.

Colorado voters have experienced a barrage of these types of ads. Even a commercial sponsored by wealthy climate change activist Tom Steyer touches upon personhood and abortion. The issue has so permeated the state’s airwaves that Udall has been dubbed “Senator Uterus,” according to a Denver Post reporter.

The lead of a Denver Post article last month read: “If Colorado's U.S. Senate race were a movie, the set would be a gynecologist's office, complete with an exam table and a set of stirrups.”

The abortion focus led the paper to endorse Gardner this year, after it supported Udall six years ago and President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. “Udall is trying to frighten voters rather than inspire them with a hopeful vision. His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince,” the editorial board wrote.

Democrats say their ground operation, including a get-out-the-vote effort, will push Udall over the edge to victory. Their $60 million “Bannock Street Project,” aimed at turning out the vote in states with competitive Senate races, takes its name from the address of Bennet’s Denver campaign headquarters. Democrats spent $2.5 million on ground efforts in Colorado four years ago, and they are spending more than that amount this year, according to campaign officials. The contraception issue, they say, cuts across gender and party lines. Democrats insist they have an even better argument against Gardner than they did against Buck because the former is a congressman who has had the opportunity to vote on issues. 

Early voting is already underway in the state. And for the first time, Colorado is allowing voting by mail, which Democrats say will increase turnout.

Republicans are confident in their operation too, and believe a variety of issues, including the president’s job performance, will motivate voters. (The PPP survey actually found Udall's approval to be lower than Obama's.)  Though Obama won Colorado twice, he now threatens to drag Udall down. The senator backed out of a fundraiser with the president in Colorado over the summer, which underscored just how politically dangerous appearing with him can be.

Udall, however, is welcoming Michelle Obama to Denver on Thursday for a rally aimed at base voters. Hillary Clinton also came to Colorado on Tuesday to campaign for the incumbent, her second appearance for him this month. During that event, she hit hard on the contraception issue.

The election will not only be consequential in determining control of the Senate, but will also carry implications for the 2016 presidential contest. Factor in an electorate evenly split among Democrats, Republicans, and independents, a growing Latino voting population and regularly voting women, and you have state that bears watching in presidential years.

Both sides are taking cues from 2010. This time, the stakes are higher. If a candidate like Gardner can’t win in a year like this one, Republicans will have to be concerned about the party’s viability there in the presidential race. But Democrats might have to revisit their women-centered strategy if Udall can’t pull out a win with the playbook the party has have been perfecting for years -- and is counting on.

In two weeks, both approaches will be put to the test. And so far, Gardner appears to have an edge, putting the Democratic game plan in jeopardy.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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