Republican Gardner's chances have improved in race for Senate
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WASHINGTON – The United States does not hold national referendums, but if the country were to hold a federal ballot initiative on abortion, it might do so in Colorado. The state’s U.S. Senate race has served as a proxy for a national vote on the controversial cultural issue.
For six months, Sen. Mark Udall, a pro-choice Democrat, has attacked Rep. Cory Gardner, a pro-life Republican, as an enemy of women’s reproductive rights.
In April, a Udall campaign ad noted that Gardner supported legislation to add language to the Colorado constitution that would define a fertilized human egg as a person. “It comes down to respect for women and our lives, so Congressman Gardner’s support for harsh anti-abortion laws is disturbing,” a female narrator said.
Last month, a Udall commercial ridiculed Gardner’s support of a federal bill that would define human life as beginning at conception. “No one can blame you for checking a calendar to remind yourself. Yep, it really is 2014,” Udall said to the camera. “So how is it that we’re still debating a woman’s access to abortion and contraception?”
The relentlessness of Udall’s ad campaign against Gardner is unusual, but Udall’s criticism is not. Coloradans heard a similar line of attack four years ago.
Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, blasted Ken Buck, the Republican nominee, for supporting legislation to ban abortion in cases of rape and incest. Bennet faced obstacles in his race. He was appointed to his position in 2009, and Republicans voters were more motivated to vote in the mid-term election than Democrats. But his attacks helped undermine Buck’s credibility with the state’s female voters, who supported Bennet by a 56-to-40 percent margin, according to exit polls. Bennet eked out a 0.9 percentage-point victory.
Bennet’s strategy caught the attention of leading Democrats, and the junior senator landed a position as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Bennet and his top DSCC aides convinced Udall to pillory Gardner as a far-right candidate on cultural issues. Citing figures from pollster Celinda Lake and the Voter Participation Center, Bennet’s aides noted that Udall needed strong turnout from single female voters.
In the spring, Udall’s line of attack struck neutral political observers as a smart strategy. The Colorado electorate voted on personhood ballot initiatives in 2008 and 2010, and both times fewer than three in 10 voters voted for the measure. Congressional aides to Colorado Republicans disclosed to reporters on background their fears that Udall’s strategy would sink Gardner.
But Gardner recalibrated his position on artificial birth control. He endorsed legislation to sell oral contraceptives over the counter rather than through prescription. “Too many Democrats prefer to attack Republicans on the issue of contraception rather than actually make contraception more available and affordable and too many Republicans are afraid to break the mold,” Gardner wrote in an op-ed that appeared on June 19 in The Denver Post, the state’s largest paper. “Instead of accusing me falsely, Sen. Udall should stop using the debate over women’s medical care for his own political benefit and instead work with me to pursue health policies that make health care cheaper and easier for Colorado women.”
By October, Udall’s barrage of attacks on Gardner’s cultural positions drew resentment from the state’s independent voters.
On October 10, The Denver Post criticized Udall’s strategyas cynical. “Rather than run on his record, Udall’s campaign has devoted a shocking amount of energy and money trying to convince voters that Gardner seeks to outlaw birth control despite the congressman’s call for over-the-counter sales of contraceptives. Udall is trying to frighten voters rather than inspire them with a hopeful vision. His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince,” the editorial board wrote.
The Post endorsed Gardner, a decision made more remarkable by its endorsement of Udall in 2008 and support for abortion rights and for same-sex "marriage." Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver, said Udall’s strategy has backfired. “The “war on women” ads are so repetitive and harsh that they not only seem to have lost affect, but are producing a backlash of criticism,” Ciruli wrote on his blog this month.
Voters’ impressions of the candidates changed. AsWashington Postreporter Aaron Blake noted, Gardner’s favorability ratings soared. On May 8, Gardner had a favorability rating in the mid-30s, according to Public Policy Polling. On October 13, Gardner had a favorability rating of 50 percent, according to CNN. (Gardner’s unfavorability ratings remained in the low 40s).
Udall’s support dropped. In July, the senior senator had a disapproval rating of 47 percent, according to Public Policy Polling. By this month, Udall’s unfavorability rating was 53 percent, according to CNN.
Gardner has pulled ahead in the race, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. He enjoys a three-point percentage lead over Udall.
Will Gardner’s lead hold up? If it does, said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, both political parties will need to rethink their strategies on abortion.
“I’m not even sure we can understand the importance of this race as regards to this issue," Gonzales said. "Democrats have gone full steam ahead on abortion and choice. If Udall loses, what lesson will they learn? If Republicans win, what lesson will they learn on over the counter sales of birth control? Does that have consequences in the presidential race?”