Weak incumbent poll numbers. Obamacare as a wedge issue. A national Republican Party hungering to take back the U.S. Senate.
Those were all factors in U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner’s surprising decision to jump in the race to challenge incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
How those factors will play out come Nov. 4 remains to be seen. But Gardner’s entry cleared the GOP field of two of his most prominent rivals, and it has Republicans fired up. So fired up that the Colorado race made the second paragraph of Republican operative Karl Rove’s <em>Wall Street Journal</em> column Thursday.
“Republican Congressman Cory Gardner’s decision on March 1 to run against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado — a state President Obama carried in 2008 and 2012 — indicates that Democrats have a blue-state problem too,” Rove wrote.
Gardner’s Senate candidacy even surprised his one-time boss, former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, who’s now vice president for government relations at the American Motorcyclist Association in D.C.
“When he made the decision to get in the race, I was not expecting it because he hadn’t visited with me,” Allard said. “But if anybody looks at the polls, there are a lot of Democrats who are down in their low 40s when polled on whether they think they’re doing a good job or not, and Mark Udall is one of them.”
By the numbers
A Quinnipiac Poll taken in early February shows that only 42 percent of 1,139 Colorado registered voters surveyed had a favorable opinion of Udall – slightly down from 44 percent in November. Among independent voters, that number was 37 percent.
The poll also matched Udall up with five potential GOP opponents. In each of those matchups, Udall support ranged from 43 percent to 45 percent, compared with 38 percent to 42 percent support for various other opponents. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.9 percent, putting most of the comparisons within that margin.
Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, a former state party chairman, said those numbers put Udall’s “vulnerability really… into sharp focus,” and influenced Gardner’s decision to challenge the incumbent.
“I think Cory has been going through a methodical process,” Wadhams said. “As a congressman, he had the luxury of waiting this long.
“There were a lot of people close to him who were urging him… ‘You’re young, you’re at the top of your game.’”
A risk for Gardner
Gardner’s decision also means giving up a promising career in the House, where he is well-liked by his colleagues and carries plenty of conservative cred. Allard noted that Gardner has been mentioned for potential leadership roles in the House. He gives that up to run for Senate.
“For someone like Gardner, he’s in a pretty safe House district, and if he wanted, he could probably have a pretty long career there,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver. “By jumping into the Senate race, he’s taking a pretty big risk.”
In the week or two before announcing his candidacy, Gardner told his top potential rivals in the Senate race of his plans. The frontrunner, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, decided to drop out and run for Gardner’s 4th Congressional District seat, where he’s likely to face a primary. State Rep. Amy Stephens also dropped out and, like Buck, threw her support to Gardner.
But not every primary candidate is bowing out..
When news broke on Feb. 26 that Gardner was running, state Sen. Owen Hill tweeted, “Not surprised. Cory tried to get me to drop out & it was clear he made a back room deal with Ken Buck.” Then Hill added, “This scheming is exactly what is wrong with the insider GOP leadership in CO, who think they choose who our candidates are, not the people.”
Hill isn’t getting out of the race, and the Tea Party Express is standing strong in its endorsement of him. In a statement last week, the group’s Chairwoman Amy Kremer called Gardner “the establishment’s anointed candidate.”
That establishment likely includes the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which backs candidates in general elections and is looking to take over the Senate from Democrats. In 2010, the NRSC spent more than $5 million to support Buck, who was narrowly defeated by Sen. Michael Bennet.
But that was a drop in that year’s $30 million Senate race bucket. Rove’s American Crossroads and the conservative Club for Growth also kicked in millions, as did Democratic groups supporting Bennet.
The battle begins
This year, the Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare – will be a primary focus of that outside spending. The Quinnipiac poll indicated that 60 percent of Coloradans surveyed said they oppose Obama’s health care reform law, up from 56 percent in November. And Republicans already were pounding at Udall for his support of the bill.
GOP leaders – and Gardner – also are making a big deal out of a dispute between Udall staffers and state insurance department officials over the number of health insurance policies cancelled in Colorado last year.
“Republicans see anything related to Obamacare as a vulnerability for Democrats,” DU’s Masket said. “It doesn’t poll very well. Particularly in a midterm election where passionate active voters can make a difference, you want to tie a politician to Obamacare.”
It has been only a week and a half since Gardner entered the race, yet the sniping with Udall already has started. Udall is targeting Gardner on women’s issues such as abortion. Gardner is criticizing Udall over his recent advocacy of the oil and gas industry, after both men introduced bills dealing with natural gas exports and the Ukrainian crisis.
Expect plenty of back and forth for the rest of the year, and plenty of money invested as Udall faces what could be his toughest race since 1998, when he first won his seat in the U.S. House by a 2-point margin.
“I don’t think Udall was really expecting a serious race,” said Masket. Udall “really hasn’t had his name out there like someone who was running for his life might be.”
[ Image via House GOP ]