Republican Congressman Cory Gardner appears in preliminary election returns to have unseated incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in a hard-fought campaign that was indicative of a national GOP wave against an unpopular president.
Fueled by large sums of outside money, the campaign — the most expensive Senate race in Colorado history — pitted the established Colorado Democrat Udall against an up-and-coming Republican in Gardner.
A year ago, pundits universally predicted that Udall, the well-financed member of a western political legacy, would ease to re-election against Republican challenger Ken Buck, a failed candidate in a previous campaign.
But then Gardner, a likable, disciplined first-term member of Congress from the Eastern Plains town of Yuma, jumped into the race, relegating Buck to the 4th Congressional District seat — which he won handily.
Earlier in the day, Udall acknowledged that he was in the political fight of his life.
“I prepared at the beginning of the year for a tough race, given what history would tell you,” the first-term senator from Colorado told The Colorado Independent. “I relish the competition. … You have to earn it.”
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Democrat who held one of Colorado’s Senate seats until being tapped by President Obama for a cabinet position, clung to the faint hope that late votes would redeem Udall.
“There’s always hope until the very end. And then there’s still hope after that,” he said just after 9 p.m.
In a race closely followed — and heavily financed — by interests seeking to tilt control of the U.S. Senate that was teetering with a narrow Democratic majority, Udall was hoping to eke out a win despite a national Republican wave swelling against an unpopular president.
The scion of a powerhouse political family sometimes called “the Kennedys of the West,” the lanky, craggy-faced Udall is the easily recognizable son of the late Congressman Morris “Mo” Udall, the nephew of former Kennedy Cabinet member Stewart Udall and the cousin of New Mexican U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, who swept into Congress at the same time.
His opponent Gardner — the son of a Yuma farm-implement dealer billed as the “new face” of the GOP — put his own political career on the line by jumping from a safe seat in Congess to take on Udall and put the seat into play on a national level.
The memorable impressions from the campaign boil down to a pair of prizefighters dodging and juking in the first round, mostly trying to avoid being hit while hoping for easy shots at the opponent.
Udall, for example, tried to distance himself from President Barack Obama, despite voting for his efforts 92 percent of the time. The first-term senator even went so far as to avoid his own campaign fundraiser that featured a visit to Colorado from the president.
He also hedged when asked whether he supported construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run tar-sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. He said more research needed to be completed on the pipeline and the massive extraction project.
Gardner, meanwhile, renounced his previous support for “personhood” amendments in Colorado that would outlaw nearly all abortion, then blithely rejected the notion that he still supports the effort on a federal level in a bill that he continues to co-sponsor. “There is no personhood bill,” Gardner insisted, despite all evidence — and even acknowledgement from pro-life forces that the bill is a personhood bill — to the contrary. Gardner defended his support for the measure by saying it was “simply a statement that I support life.”
Similarly, Gardner has refused to disclose the details of his new Obamacare-approved health-insurance policy, which he has made into an issue because of his charge that his previous, less-expensive policy was canceled under the new health-care law and replaced with a more expensive one. (In most cases, policies were canceled nationwide only because they offered coverage deemed substandard under the federal Affordable Care Act.)
Udall’s campaign early on focused so singularly on attacking Gardner on his stance on abortion rights and equal pay for women that he was derisively dubbed “Mark Uterus.”
Only recently has Udall expanded his message to talk about his solid-if-low-profile track record and focus on immigration reform, protecting public lands, raising the minimum wage, ensuring college affordability and ending government spying on U.S. citizens.
“My opponent takes the opposite views,” he said.
Gardner hit back at Udall by tying him to the president, arguing that it was Udall whose work in the Senate was guided by partisan loyalty.
“You have voted 99 percent of the time with Barack Obama in support of his failed policies,” Gardner said.
He also attacked Udall for supporting the Affordable Care Act, making the law known as Obamacare a centerpiece of his campaign.
“You said we could keep our doctors,” Gardner said. “You said that if we liked our plan, we could keep it. You didn’t say if I liked your plan, you could keep it.”
Given its tossup nature and the potential balance of control of the U.S. Senate at stake, the race attracted unprecedented outside money supporting the two official campaigns.
Since Oct. 12, the National Republican Senatorial Committee invested close to $4 million in Colorado’s Senate race (entirely in the form of ads that slam Udall), and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee invested more than $2 million (entirely in the form of ads that slam Gardner).
The opposite dynamic is true at the national level, where the DSCC is outspending the NRSC.
In Colorado, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is the biggest spender on political ads. Registered as a 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization, it dropped more than $10 million without having to disclose its donors.
Though Democrats are trailing in dark-money spending and their national party committee is deep in the red, they do have a savior in the form of one billionaire philanthropist in California: former hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer. His Super PAC – NextGen Climate Action Committee – has spent nearly $7 million opposing Gardner this cycle and still has more cash on hand than any other that filed in the latest reporting period.
Meanwhile, political heavyweights including former President Bill Clinton for the Dems and Mitt Romney for the GOP have traipsed through Denver to stump for their respective candidates.
Gardner, meanwhile, has run a tight campaign and hasn’t committed the gaffes that have doomed other Republicans in previous statewide campaigns.