The Battle for Colorado Is the Battle for America

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by Joshua Green,

from Bloomberg Businessweek,

Why the dead-heat Senate race between Mark Udall and Cory Gardner is a preview of the 2016 national election.

Mark Udall, the Democratic senator running for reelection in Colorado this fall, is a scion of a famous political family and the Platonic ideal of what a Western politician is supposed to look like. His father, Mo, was a longtime Arizona congressman and a 1976 Democratic presidential candidate; his cousin Tom is a senator in neighboring New Mexico.

Ordinarily, a politician so well suited to his state might expect to have a seat for life, as his father did. Indeed, Udall had been coasting to ­reelection. Then in February, Representative Cory Gardner, a talented Republican upstart from the rural Eastern Plains, jumped into the race ­unexpectedly, and the GOP establishment cleared the field to accommodate him.

Colorado Republicans have suffered mightily in recent elections as a once solidly red state has trended blue. Barack Obama carried it twice. The party’s misfortune stems mainly from its struggles to field good candidates.

With Gardner in the race, however, things are different: Colorado’s Senate race is a dead heat—or, in the urgent prose of Udall’s fundraising e-mails, “Nate Silver’s ­ election analysis is calling this race the most competitive in the country!”

Colorado’s Senate race has upended Tip O’Neill’s old line about all politics being local. Here, all politics is national. Gardner is a highly charismatic politician with one gigantic liability: He’s a member of the deeply unpopular ­Republican House. Even Democratic ads that touch on local issues, such as the floods that ravaged Colorado last fall, nationalize his candidacy by reminding viewers that he voted to shut down the government 10 days later. “It’s a question of, do you want to import the politics of the House of Representatives to Colorado?” Udall told me one day in his office.

But the main line of attack is Gardner’s record on birth control and abortion, which he opposes even in cases of rape and incest. “For the last six or eight years, issues of choice and women’s health have been a signifier of whether someone’s in the mainstream,” says Guy Cecil, the ­executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). “It’s the entry point to make a much larger case: If someone is this extreme on abortion, they’re more likely to be extreme on a host of other issues.” So critical are women voters to Democrats’ fortunes in November that a recent ad features Udall dressed like a rancher up in the Rockies, but instead of talking about his love of the outdoors, he’s talking about abortion—and without hiding behind euphemisms like “freedom” or “choice.” How is it,” he asks, “that we’re still debating a woman’s access to abortion or birth control? For most of us, those debates got settled by the last generation.

Liberal super PACs such as the one funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer have picked up on this cue, producing strange ads that attack Gardner on birth control before pivoting to condemn his environmental record. Republicans have responded. Karl Rove’s issue-­advocacy group, Crossroads GPS, cut an ad featuring a group of concerned women wondering why all Udall ever talks about is abortion. But Gardner’s own ­response was the most revealing: In June, to blunt the attacks, he called for birth control pills to be made available over the counter.

Despite his Western appeal, Udall has a big problem of his own: Barack Obama. In a recent poll (PDF), Coloradans preferred Udall’s positions on most issues but still favored Gardner by two points. The reason? Obama’s dismal ­approval rating (35 percent). Udall has tried to stress his ­independence by citing his criticism of the ­National ­Security Agency and the CIA. But as an incumbent senator, he has a hard time explaining away years of voting mainly along party lines.

Gardner usually doesn’t let 10 minutes pass without reminding ­everyone within earshot that “Mark Udall votes with President Obama 99 percent of the time.” (A 2013 CQ Roll Call study of Senate votes backs up this charge.) In July, when Obama flew to Colorado to raise money for him, Udall found a reason to leave the state.

Like any hotly contested Senate race this cycle, Colorado’s is critical because it could end up determining which party controls the Senate for Obama’s final two years.

But it will also tell us a lot about where the parties stand heading into the 2016 presidential election. Colorado’s Senate race has become a presidential campaign in miniature, with two strong candidates who are both career politicians facing off over mainly national issues, as billionaires on the left (Steyer) and the right (the Koch brothers) saturate the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads.

Politically, Colorado is a slightly ­exaggerated version of America.

Yet it isn’t just the contours of the state’s politics that mirror the country’s; its economics and demographics do, too. Colorado has a complex, advanced economy. The state is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. And unlike other swing states with close Senate races (Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina), it has a large Hispanic population that’s become a crucial voting bloc. All this combines to make Colorado an uncommonly ­accurate gauge of ­national political sentiment.

In Washington, Gardner is considered a comer. Until February, everyone assumed he was grooming himself for a run at House leadership, which would have made a lot of sense. He’s young (40), ambitious, and equipped with a blinding optimism that contrasts favorably with the dour, prickly Republican leaders of today. No matter the audience or occasion, Gardner’s public bearing is that of a man who’s just found out he’s won the lottery. “We have to be optimistic,” he says. “The ­Republican Party has to be the party of optimism and giving our children a better starting point. We have to make sure we’re broader, more inclusive, and reaching out to every community.”

Gardner says he decided to give up his House seat and run for the Senate because he was tired of Democrats blocking GOP bills. “Look at the number of bills we’ve passed in the House,” he says. “I didn’t go there to send out press releases. We’ve passed over 300 bills, many of them with bipartisan support, but none are moving in the Senate because Harry Reid won’t bring them up. And Harry Reid is there because of people like Mark Udall.”

Another likely factor in Gardner’s ­decision was the tail wind Colorado ­Republicans were expecting from oil and gas companies, thanks to a series of ballot initiatives, backed by Representative Jared Polis of Boulder, a liberal Democrat, that would ban or limit several forms of hydraulic fracturing. This threat to a $29 billion state ­industry was expected to elicit many millions of dollars in ads from oil companies frantic to preserve their drilling rights.

Because Gardner was gunning for House leadership, he’s voted as a hard-right conservative. Last year, ­National Journal ranked him as the 10th-most-­conservative member of the House, putting him to the right of such Tea Party stalwarts as Steve King and Michele Bachmann.

Still, the sudden shift from wooing conservatives to appealing to moderates and independents has been tricky. Nothing ­illustrates this better than Gardner’s struggle to switch positions on ­personhood. In 2008 and 2010, he supported Colorado’s personhood amendments (both were ­defeated). He currently co-sponsors a federal personhood bill, the Life at Conception Act, that would give legal protection to the “preborn” from “the moment of fertilization.”

One reason opponents object to such laws is that they appear to outlaw hormonal forms of birth control, such as the pill, that prevent fertilized eggs from ­implanting in the uterine wall. In March, after joining the Senate race, Gardner ­declared that he would not support Colorado’s latest personhood initiative, basing his decision on the rather incredible claim that he had only recently grasped its full effect. “As I’ve learned more about it,” he told the Associated Press, “I’ve come to the conclusion it can ban common forms of contraception.” Yet he’s still a co-sponsor of the federal bill.

If he can hold on to win a state Obama carried twice, it’s a good bet Gardner will not only break the Democrats’ grip on the Senate but also give his own beleaguered party a road map for the years ahead. “If you look at what’s happened in Colorado,” he says, “there was a period where Republicans may have overreached. Now we see where the Democrats have overreached. And when that happens, the people of Colorado react.” If they do decide Democrats have gone too far too fast, it will be an ominous sign for Hillary Clinton, or whoever is the 2016 nominee, since most Democrats support gay marriage, gun control, liberalization of marijuana laws, and the Affordable Care Act.

[Udall] can still eke out a victory. Colorado Democrats were among the first to build a sophisticated turnout operation (it’s credited with ­securing Senator Bennet’s win in 2010). A recent New York Times study found the state’s Democrats outspending Republicans in voter turnout by 8 to 1.

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