Colorado's Grand Experiment

Colorado's Grand Experiment

By Carl M. Cannon - October 24, 2014

DENVER – It was not Mark Twain, but rather a friend of Twain’s named Charles Dudley Warner, who famously and drolly noted that although people often complain about weather, they rarely do anything about it.

A modern and corollary observation can be made about the attack ads that have made watching television in this city, and other American metropolitan locales with hotly contested Senate races, an unpleasant experience. The candidates complain mightily about the negatives ads running against them, but they don’t do anything — i.e., they don’t attempt to quell the ads smearing their opponents.

This is especially relevant in Colorado, which top officials in the Democratic Party have apparently decided is their firebreak. It’s also particularly incongruous in this state. The subject of Charles Warner’s witticism was specifically New England’s weather. Coloradans take pride in their climate, along with their mountains, and their blue skies. Complaints about the weather are rare out here, and this autumn has been one of the most pleasant in recorded history—if you don’t count the foulness being broadcast over the airwaves.

Through a confluence of events, Coloradans are engaged in a sweeping civic experiment this election cycle. It consists of two parts. In the first part, the candidates seem to be doing everything they can do diminish interest in the election itself. They deny this, of course. They’ve been looking their fellow citizens in the eye and telling them that it’s never been more important that they vote, and urging them to encourage others to do the same. The reasons they cite for participating in the election aren’t calculated to inspire, however, but rather to frighten: The other side is terrible, horrible, and no good.

Both sides are doing it. But in the waning two weeks of the campaign, Democrats have distinguished themselves, if you can call it that, by the sheer volume of their vitriol. Want to watch the local news in Denver? Doing so means submitting yourself to wall-to-wall negative ads attacking the record and character of Republican Congressman Cory Gardner, who is running in the U.S. Senate race here against incumbent Mark Udall. It is a race no less a personage than Michelle Obama says is crucial to American democracy. Not that the first lady can actually tell Udall and Gardner apart, but more on that in a moment.

In one brief stretch of midweek television viewing, Cory Gardner was the subject of back-to-back-to-back attack ads by Udall surrogate groups, each competing with the others for the distinction of distorting his record the most.

The first was 30-second hit job titled “Felony,” produced by a Democratic super PAC run by Harry Reid’s former chief of staff. It depicts a woman behind bars, presumably for either having or performing an abortion that Cory Gardner would like to have prevented; the ad ends with the incendiary, and spurious, assertion that if the Republican candidate had his way “doctors would have faced up to 12 years in prison, meaning a rape victim’s doctor could be punished more severely than her rapist.”

Next up was a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spot claiming absurdly that Gardner “voted seven times to essentially end Medicare.” No sooner had the discerning viewer digested that little stink bomb than a League of Conservation Voters ad spent a couple of seconds talking about Gardner’s environment record before eliding into—you guessed it—Gardner’s opposition to abortion, which is not an issue that exactly pertains to the pristineness of Colorado’s environment.

The official Udall campaign has aired many similar attacks, too, although this week the Democratic senator was trying to pivot to a more positive message. He seemed rusty at it. In 2008 Udall aired uplifting, even inspiring political ads. Those muscles have apparently atrophied: Even his “positive” ad running this week asserts that he stood up to bullies in Washington, namely George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Such uninspiring fare is being replicated in the dueling campaigns’ ground operations as well. Getting the Gardner campaign to even release its public schedule is like wresting secrets from the NSA. “They don’t want free media,” one reporter here said, shaking his head. “It’s weird.”

Consequently, Gardner was rumored to be holding some sort of Denver event Thursday, according to the state Republican Party, but it got no coverage because the local political writers didn’t know about it. Meanwhile, the Fourth Estate assembled itself on the outskirts of Denver at a Udall campaign event featuring surrogates Rep. Diana DeGette, Sen. Michael Bennet, and the star of the show, Michelle Obama.

The staging of it was curious. First of all, it was held in a stuffy, out-of-way warehouse with a low ceiling and a dark interior—on a glorious and sunny Colorado day when most sane people wanted to be outdoors. The warm-up actors, DeGette and Bennet, made their speeches, and then … nothing for about half an hour while the crowd waited for Udall and Mrs. Obama. When she finally took the stage, the first lady gave a spirited defense of her husband’s record as president, noting—as did Bennet—that the economy in the country is better than when Barack Obama took office, and is especially strong in Colorado.

In previous appearances, Mrs. Obama has made news by displaying only a passing familiarity with the Democratic candidates she is lauding, and some conservatives were quick to jump on a seeming gaffe Thursday when the first lady introduced Udall as “a fifth-generation Coloradan.” Unfortunately, that description describes Cory Gardner exactly and is a less apt appellation for the Arizona born-and-bred Udall. It wasn’t quite a gaffe: Mark Udall certainly has deep roots in Colorado: His late mother was a fourth-generation Coloradan, and they came from accomplished and civic-minded stock. Udall’s grandfather was dubbed “the father of Colorado tourism,” and his great-grandfather served as Colorado’s water engineer.

But Michelle Obama wasn’t here to debate pedigrees. She was here to encourage people to vote in a year when that no longer means going to the polls. That’s the second part of Colorado’s great civic experiment. The state has gone to an all-mail form of voting. There are still “voting centers” where Coloradans can drop off their ballots, but those ballots were mailed to each resident in the state.

So voting is now officially an open-book test. And supposedly it’s easier, though each side has qualms. Some Colorado Republicans fear that the new system lends itself too easily to voting fraud. Some Democrats fear that participation in the Latino and African-American communities will decline. Michelle Obama addressed herself to this concern. “When we stay home, they win!” she exhorted the crowd before reminding them: “Your mailbox is now your ballot box!”

Colorado is not the first state to implement this system. That distinction belongs to Oregon. But 2014 is the first time that control of the Senate may hinge on mail-in votes. Extrapolating from Oregon is not easy. Voter participation certainly hasn’t declined there. If anything it’s increased turnout, while also increasing Democrats’ share of the vote. But, as Denver-based Democratic political consultant Rick Ridder notes, Oregon’s electorate is more monolithic than Colorado’s.

“In a few years everybody adapts to it,” Ridder says. “But four years ago the push at the very end that helped Democrats came in college towns and minority communities. I’m not sure that same [dynamic] exists with mail-in voting.” He took heart this week from a poll conducted by the Democratic-leaning Project New America; it found that 82 percent of midterm “drop-off voters” in Colorado—those who voted in 2012, but not in 2010—had received ballots. One implication is that those who might have forgotten to vote this year will have been nudged into it.

Political scientist Seth Masket isn’t sure mail-in voting will have any effect on the outcome, but in an election as close as the Udall-Gardner race, any uncertainty makes both sides nervous.

“Most evidence suggests it doesn’t really change turnout much,” said Masket, a University of Denver professor. “But by spreading out ‘Election Day’ across three weeks, it erodes the highly visible turnout push usually associated with a single day’s election.

“I’m also a bit concerned about the fact that voters have to pay for postage, and that it’s a non-standard postage — 70 cents in Denver,” he added. “It’s not a major cost, of course, but it is a modest impediment to voting, and makes it harder for voters who don’t follow campaign news much to know what to do.”

But there’s the rub: The candidates have made it hard for Coloradans of reasonable temperaments to “follow campaign news.” In the end, however, the voters will have to render their verdict. And here, a genuine Mark Twain bromide applies. Americans possess “one great privilege,” the great writer once opined: “When a thing gets to be absolutely unbearable the people can rise up and throw it off. That's the finest asset we've got -- the ballot box.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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