In a huge blow to Democratic chances of keeping the Senate, Republican challenger Cory Gardner has beaten Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in the Colorado Senate race, according to projections from the Associated Press, CNN and Fox News.
From the start, the Colorado Senate race has been viewed as a referendum on the Democratic campaign playbook. Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) has single-mindedly focused on women voters and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics. He aimed to re-create the messaging strategy and turnout operation that propelled Sen. Michael Bennet to an unlikely victory in 2010.
Republican Cory Gardner’s campaign, meanwhile, has engineered almost his entire campaign to prevent Udall from pulling that off. To start his candidacy, he denounced the state anti-abortion personhood movement that he had previously backed and never strayed, even as reporters pounded Gardner for his continued support of a federal personhood bill. He voiced support for over-the-counter birth control while tying Udall to President Barack Obama at every turn.
The temptation might be to view Udall’s loss as a repudiation of the Democratic playbook. But those in the state aren’t sold on that interpretation. Colorado is a narrowly divided state where Democrats have an edge, but Republicans can still win. Given the poisonous national environment, Gardner should have won, said Peter Hanson, a political scientist at the University of Denver.
“Republicans frankly should win in a year like this in Colorado,” he said. “Candidates who are of the same party as an unpopular president will struggle. The entire reason that Mark Udall is vulnerable is because Barack Obama is unpopular. In that respect, Colorado is not unique whatsoever.”
Udall took a beating for his singular focus on women’s health and attempt to remind voters of Gardner’s past positions. The Denver Post abandoned Udall after endorsing him in 2008 and cited, among other things, his “insulting” one-issue campaign. Even Udall’s supporters were openly criticizing the strategy in the lead-up to Election Day: As one donor put it: “Fucking abortion is all he talks about.”
Some Democrats in the state did credit Gardner’s campaign with creating a conversation — via, for example, a TV ad with women criticizing Udall for his one-note campaign — about whether the incumbent was focused too much on one issue.
“Once that momentum started, the question was: do you double down or do you change the tune? Double down won out,” a source supportive of Udall said. “I do think it was a mistake not to lean in on other issues than just women.”
But others like Laura Chapin, a Colorado Democratic strategist, told TPM that it was still the right call.
“Udall’s campaign didn’t run this strategy out of the goodness of their heart,” she said. “That was what the numbers told them to do.”
To underline her point, she pointed out that Gardner had to abandon his past personhood support and lurch to the left in order to undercut the Udall strategy. He didn’t win, Chapin said, by running on a Republican platform.
“He’s been trying to run as a pro-choice Democrat. That’s the really fucked up thing about it,” she said. “He ceded the argument on choice and reproductive rights.”
Still, Chapin expected some soul-searching by Democrats after losing on what they thought would be winning playbook. But any dramatic revisions would be a misreading of why Udall lost this year: anti-incumbency fervor.
“I think it will be kind of an ‘Oh shit’ moment,” she said. “People wanted an alternative, regardless of whether that alternative actually fits what they want and what they think they’re going to get out of it.”
The longer term trends in Colorado still bode well for Democrats, however, despite Tuesday’s result, Hanson agreed.
“This is fundamentally a state that’s up for grabs. I think over a period of years, trends will make the state increasingly safe for Democrats,” he said. “But right now, we’re not there yet.”