New polls show Gardner losing ground on oil & gas, healthcare law

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]ublic Policy Polling, a left-leaning pollster with a solid track record in Colorado, reported Monday that the tight U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Mark Udall and Republican Congressman Cory Gardner is now leaning Udall and likely to continue to do so in the future.

The poll found that Udall’s lead on Gardner has gone up five points since March, which still puts it at a close 47/43 split, just within the poll’s four percent margin of error.

More Coloradans were becoming familiar with Gardner’s name over the last two months, according to the findings, but that didn’t translate as a positive thing. Whereas voters were split on their approval of Gardner in March, this week 42 percent say they disapprove of him while 35 percent approve. The poll also found slight disapproval of Udall with a 45/42 split.

Pollster Tom Jensen said Gardner’s negatives have spiked in the wake of a $1.3 million ad campaign funded by The League of Conservation Voters, which also commissioned the poll. The ads underlined Gardner’s deep ties to the oil and gas industry and his support for low-regulation on drilling.

“There’s no doubt that Senator Udall and his allies have been running a totally negative campaign against Congressman Gardner for weeks now and that’s bound to have some short-term effect in the polls,” said Republican political analyst Dick Wadhams, adding that he feels Gardner still has plenty of time to define himself with voters.

Perhaps the first way many statewide voters met Cory Gardner was through his announcement that he no longer supports personhood. The flip blew up late March headlines. In April the Udall campaign gave the issue more life by rolling out a free-standing website devoted to pointing out that Gardner still supports federal live-begins-at-conception legislation.

The personhood issue does not appear to be going away for Gardner, but Wadhams says the March recantation will take the steam out of the Republicans-are-anti-women playbook that was so effective in the state’s last Senate race. In that 2010 Tea Party wave year, Republican Senate hopeful Ken Buck, who made a switch on personhood late in the campaign, lost to Senator Michael Bennet in a close race when largely suburban, female voters swung left.

Aside from this potential blurring around social issues, a topic Gardner has historically steered away from, the two candidates could hardly be more different on the two political issues Colorado voters are talking about the most: oil and gas development and the Affordable Care Act.

If you go with the PPP poll, which focused on oil and gas, Gardner’s in trouble here. By wide margins voters thought Gardner would do a worse job protecting the environment and was more likely to “do the bidding of big oil.” Fifty-six percent of the 526 voters polled also said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who supported oil company tax breaks than one who didn’t, which was the subject of a LCV attack ad against Gardner.

“The issue of oil subsidies resonates all across the country and particularly in this race. Voters do not want members of Congress voting to send billions of tax dollars to some of most profitable companies on the planet,” said Jensen.

With Colorado “winning” for most extreme climate change nationwide and a slew of fracking local control initiatives with fervent grassroots support headed toward the ballots, it’s possible a simple message on oil and gas — for example that any attempt to regulate it is job killing radicalism — may not play in Colorado the way Republican campaign people are banking it will.

In addition to liberal PAC money busily tying Gardner to sludgy, scary-looking oil and gas development, there’s also potent home rule, not-in-my-backyard rhetoric and feeling buoying the oil and gas local control measures slated for the same ballot as Gardner’s Senate bid. If the initiatives get on the ballot and they’re as anti-fracking as both Republicans and some Democrats fear, the grassroots base with the most skin in the game won’t be Gardner-friendly.

Grassroots politics are inarguably powerful in Colorado. It’s a post-recall political universe, after all. And this fall it may be a case of the ideological grass being greener on the other side. Fracktivists developed their movement in the same social media polis as the ruthlessly effective Second Amendment gunnies who recalled two powerful Democratic Senators and got another to resign last fall despite being outspent on the left.

The recalls taught Colorado citizens and legislators an important, and in this political age a rare, lesson. The new facebooking, youtubing, meme-generating, tweeting grassroots can occasionally blow up a political situation otherwise governed by money. While sharing ads on TV costs millions, sharing a much broader array of political spin online is — at least for now — virtually free.

Though it remains to be seen, it’s possible that no amount of money will keep people living in the gas patch from voting for initiatives that would mandate 2,000-foot oil and gas industry setbacks from occupied structures. That’s especially likely if multiple options make it to the ballot and the local control messaging’s done right. Dustin Zvonek, the executive director of Colorado’s branch of the conservative PAC Americans for Progress, has expressed serious concern about that possibility.

As part of the repeal-or-die-trying contingent of the Republican-controlled Congress, Gardner started his campaign long before he announced by working to establish as many links as possible between Udall and the rocky roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, which Udall voted for.

Gardner has made fighting Obamacare, shorthand for the Affordable Care Act, a main avenue of attack against Udall. But while the law continues to poll higher for disapproval than approval, when nationwide voters are asked if they want to repeal it or keep it and make changes, the figures start to sway.

A CNN poll released Monday shows that 61 percent of Americans support keeping the healthcare law in place and/or keeping it while working on improvements.

The media has also reported this week that Republicans in Congress are no longer trying to actively repeal the health law and that few Republican campaigns will say if they plan on making ObamaCare ad buys. The Washington Post reports that the Service Employees International Union, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and have all pledged to pour money into ads touting the health law’s popular aspects in swing states like Colorado.

[2012 image of Congressman Cory Gardner and Senator Mark Udall from Udall flickr.]