By all the public polling, Democrats should really be sweating the Colorado Senate race at this point. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall trails his Republican challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, by more than 5 points on average. Election forecasters have pegged Colorado (along with Iowa) as the most likely election to swing control of the Senate.
But Democrats believe they’ve seen this movie before. In the 2010 Colorado Senate campaign, Democratic nominee Michael Bennet trailed (or was at best tied) in the last 11 polls of his race against Republican Ken Buck. But then on Election Day, Bennet eked out a less-than-1 point win, a rare bright spot in an otherwise tough cycle for Democrats. The win was attributed by the press to his campaign’s singular focus on two core Democratic constituencies — women and Hispanics — and an unprecedented, data-driven get-out-the-vote effort.
Now Bennet is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the DSCC has attracted headlines for exporting the Bennet model in 2014 to other tough races like Arkansas and Louisiana in a $60 million effort named for Bannock Street, where Bennet’s campaign offices were located in Denver.
But in an ironic twist, the model may be put to its severest test right back where it began, in Colorado, where Democrats are hoping to recreate the Bennet 2010 magic to pull out a win for Udall.
The methods have evolved — better software this time, an all mail-in ballot election — but the foundation remains the same, Paul Dunn, DSCC’s national field director, told TPM in a phone interview.
“I think the core principle was that was established with Bennet was: This matters,” Dunn, who worked on Bennet’s 2010 campaign, said. “If you are in the red zone, this becomes extremely important.”
“What we saw there in 2010, the question was, how are you going to overcome this Republican wave in Colorado?” he said. “We found that what works is we have ways to mechanically turn the electorate, that the way which we can do it is with targeting and prioritization.”
The Bennet influences on Udall’s campaign (and 2014 Democratic Senate campaigns in general) are everywhere. It starts with the national committee and works down to the campaign staff. Dunn and DSCC executive director Guy Cecil were top operatives for Bennet 2010. Udall campaign manager Adam Dunstone was a deputy for Bennet’s team.
The messaging in Colorado has been relentless. About half of Udall’s TV ads have been focused on women’s issues, according to the Washington Post. Back in 2010, Bennet ran an ad with a local OB/GYN warning about Buck’s extremism on women’s health, and now Udall’s campaign is going up with an ad this week featuring a local OB/GYN warning about Gardner’s opposition to abortion, part of its final push to flood the Colorado airwaves before Election Day. The Udall campaign and the outside groups supporting him have released numerous Spanish-language ads, too.
“That strategy worked pretty well and it’s really the same one that Democrats are now hoping to use against Cory Gardner,” Peter Hanson, who studies Colorado politics at the University of Denver, told TPM. “If Udall can get liberal-leaning women to turn out in larger numbers by raising fears that Cory Gardner just doesn’t get it, he’s much more likely to win the race … It’s a lesson that the Democrats learned four years ago.”
The big test for Udall’s team is whether they can successfully execute this strategy when the Republican campaign has seemed explicitly engineered to avoid a repeat of 2010. Buck was a notoriously blunt candidate that year, with cringe-worthy lines like “I do not wear high heels.” But since he announced his candidacy in early 2014, Gardner has been straining to moderate himself. His campaign began with a renunciation of his support for a state “personhood” amendment, which would outlaw abortion and many kinds of birth control.
Gardner has still had some rocky moments, particularly because he still co-sponsors a federal personhood bill. “It’s more convenient for you to say it’s not a personhood bill,” a local TV journalists snapped last month as Gardner insisted that there was no federal personhood bill. “But does saying that make it true?”
But between his personhood reversal and embrace of over-the-counter birth control, Gardner clearly came into the campaign ready to fight the Bennet 2010 playbook. “This is the playbook that they ran in 2010, and it worked. They did it again in 2012,” he told the Washington Post earlier this week. “It’s a tired, old playbook. And as a result of the failures of the policies of this administration, it’s not going to work again, because people can see right through it.”
“It is a heavier lift in 2014 than in 2010. Republicans have seen this strategy before,” Hanson told TPM. “They were ready for it. They are running a candidate in Cory Gardner who comes across as much more moderate.”
“The Republican strategy from day one has been to seek to portray him in a much more progressive light and to try to head off these attacks,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s a strategy that’s going to change minds about the Republican Party, but it might make it harder for Democrats to turn out their constituencies.”
Udall’s campaign, meanwhile, has led to an unfortunate nickname — “Mark Uterus” — and rebukes from the Denver Post’s editorial board and others. But that isn’t stopping his campaign from pressing forward with the message. They also note that Gardner has continued to run ads rebuffing the attacks — which suggests to Udall supporters that they’re working.
“The fact that he has to run his ads in the first place — I think people misunderstand what’s happening here,” a Colorado Democrat told TPM.
A robust ground operation — that other key piece of the Bennet model — was also a big reason why he outperformed the polls on Election Day, as Udall must now aim to do. Udall’s campaign sent out a memo last week boasting about how they had topped Bennet’s operation in key categories: 25 field offices in 2014, versus 15 in 2010; 100 field organizers versus 40; and 3,200 volunteers in the last month versus less than 1,000.
Bennet beat the margin polling margin by nearly 4 points, according to Real Clear Politics. President Barack Obama did the same in 2012. Based on the polling now, that is the same sort of performance that Udall is going to need. So while critics might be mocking his strategy, if Udall can repeat the 17-point edge that Bennet had with women and his 2-1 margin with Hispanics, it won’t matter.
“Bennet and Udall’s campaigns are doing the same thing because they believe in science and polls,” the Colorado Democrat said. “They’re not doing this on a whim.”