Colorado Democrats are fretting that Sen. Mark UdallMark UdallGardner's chief of staff tapped for Senate GOP campaign director The untold stories of the 2016 battle for the Senate Colorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open MORE’s (D-Colo.) “war on women” battle cry against Rep. Cory GardnerCory GardnerGardner's chief of staff tapped for Senate GOP campaign director McConnell reelected Senate majority leader Pro-pot advocates score huge victories MORE (R-Colo.) is starting to sound like a broken record.
After a series of polls this past month have shown the race statistically tied or even with Gardner up, some Democrats are urging Udall to find a new refrain against his opponent, lest Republicans claim the seat in November.
Starting essentially from Gardner’s entry into the race, Udall’s main line of attack on the GOP congressman has been his support for a federal “personhood” measure, which would effectively ban abortion and restrict many forms of birth control.
Gardner, however, has said he regretted his past support for the statewide initiative and has also helped mitigate hits against him by coming out for over-the-counter birth control — the first in a string of GOP Senate candidates to do so.
The problem is not that the attacks on Gardner haven’t worked, Democrats say — it’s that Udall is swimming against a far tougher tide than many had initially expected, even when the party was preparing for a tough cycle.
They point in particular to President Obama’s underwater approval rating in the state, and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s own tougher than expected reelection thanks, in part, to self-inflicted wounds.
“There’s a little dissatisfaction with Obama that translates down the Democratic ticket,” admitted Mike Feeley, a former Democratic state Senate minority leader. “I think Udall is trying to overcome that.”
Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli, who’s done work for both parties, said that “for a while, the national environment turned very negative against the Democrats” — and agreed that Udall’s “war on women” attacks may be growing stale.
“I do think there is a case to be made that it has run out of impact, that it’s gotten to its marginal utility,” said Ciruli. “And now, there may be a feedback loop making fun of it.”
He added it seemed as though Udall has been running a single-issue campaign for some time, and while “it is a litmus test for some people, it is not a major issue for everyone.”
Udall spokesman Chris Harris said, while the campaign has indeed run about half of its ads on birth control and personhood, “it’s not too much.”
“Not only do most voters agree with Mark on this issue, they are flabbergasted that it’s an issue at all,” he said.
Harris said the campaign sees his support for the federal personhood legislation as a main proof-point in their broader theme of attack, that Gardner is too extreme for Colorado.
“It’s the most apparent example of Gardner’s backward agenda,” he said.
The incumbent’s campaign insists they’re not concerned about the public polling, noting Colorado is notoriously hard to survey — a fact even Republicans admit — and they say their internal polls have remained static, with Udall holding a solid single-digit lead in their latest poll.
But the GOP says Democrats’ recent actions belie their words, pointing to what they said was excessive outrage aimed at Gardner’s recent ad, which contrasted his own modest upbringing with the Udall family political dynasty — the inbumbent's, former Arizona Rep. Mo Udall, and cousins Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and even conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Justin Barasky called the ad “disgusting,” and Udall, in a statement, decried the “personal attacks” and said Gardner airing it was “a shame.”
Republicans, meanwhile, laughed at the Democratic response and suggested it was a product of the difficult numbers Udall’s been facing in the polls lately.
“No wonder [DSCC Executive Director] @guycecil & DSCC are so touchy about CO,” tweeted National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring along with a new Democratic poll out Thursday showing Gardner up two points.
And Democrats outwardly admit Obama’s unpopularity in Colorado — that same Public Policy Polling survey pegged his approval at just 35 percent — is affecting the race.
“The political environment is obviously a factor; there’s no denying that,” Harris said.
Gardner’s main line of attack against Udall has been to argue he’s a rubber stamp for the president and a quintessential Washington politician.
How damaging the affiliation with the president could be became strikingly clear in July, when Udall was out of the state when Obama was in town headlining a fundraiser for him.
It’s not only the president's unpopularity that’s been challenging for Udall. His decision to postpone taking executive action on deportations until after the election has turned immigration reform from one that could’ve been a rallying issue for Hispanics to one both candidates are now largely avoiding.
“It’s taken the immigration debate off the table,” said Colorado GOP strategist Dick Wadhams.
Wadhams, a former state party chairman, noted that the race remains close, even though Udall had a head start on TV attack ads and has gone aggressively negative on Gardner for months.
“They’re in a position to win after being pounded unmercifully for six months,” he said of the GOP.
“Cory Gardner is running an energetic campaign that is full of enthusiasm, positive advertising and, as a result, voters are responding,” said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen. “Democrats have every reason to be panicked about Colorado, in large part because it’s their failed strategy that’s backfired and the responsibility for it goes straight to the top.”
Democrats insist that, polling and Obama’s approval rating aside, they remain stronger on the ground — and that’s where, they say, the race will be won. At the end of August, Udall’s campaign had twice the number of volunteers, staff and field offices than Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) had in October of 2010, when he won his Senate seat.
But Feeley said Democrats are waiting to hear what Udall’s closing argument will be, comparing the campaign to a game of football entering the final quarter.
“He’s in the red zone now, and we’ve gotta see if he’s gonna score,” he said.
But the Democrat admitted: “We’re not sure when he’s going to put it away, or how he’s going to put it away.