TOPICS > Politics > Election 2014

Independently minded Coloradans make Senate race unpredictable

October 14, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
In Colorado, one of the GOP’s main midterm battlegrounds to take control of the Senate, the candidates seem to be advocating to women to decide the race. But Rocky Mountain voters are just as likely to legalize marijuana as expand oil exploration. Gwen Ifill reports on the many factors making Colorado’s election unpredictable.

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to the rapidly approaching midterm elections.

If you want to understand why the Senate Democratic majority is in danger, you need look no further than the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado.

At first blush, it may seem that Colorado’s Senate race between incumbent Mark Udall and Congressman Cory Gardner has boiled down to two men fighting over women’s issues.

NARRATOR: Congressman Cory Gardner’s history promoting harsh anti-abortion laws is disturbing.

REP. CORY GARDNER, (R) Colorado: That’s Senator Udall’s campaign. And Senator Udall’s a social issues warrior. He wants to talk about nothing else. It’s something that they campaigned on four years ago when Michael Bennet was running in Colorado. It won then. They did it again in 2012, and so they think that same playbook will win again in 2014.

SEN. MARK UDALL, (D) Colorado: He’s saying that I’m a social issues warrior. In fact, he is. I’m an economic issues warrior. You talk to women, this is about economics. It’s also about respect. And Colorado’s fiercely independent. We’re libertarians. And we respect our freedoms. And we think government, above all, shouldn’t be involved in these really private decisions.

GWEN IFILL: But the critical Election Day question may be:  Which women are they speaking to? Are they speaking to women like Cathy Alderman, who’s been campaigning against an anti-abortion ballot initiative?

CATHY ALDERMAN: They can vote for somebody who supports women and supports women’s ability to access the health care services they need, vs. somebody who’s willing to limit that access and has spent an entire political career trying to limit that access.

GWEN IFILL: Or are they appealing to women like Briana Johnson, a mother of three who describes herself as pro-life?

BRIANA JOHNSON: It’s hard when a group of women is going on and claiming to speak for the entire population of women, because, yes, I don’t — I don’t relate to that. They say you know Cory Gardner’s too extreme for women of Colorado. Well, that’s not what I believe, and that immediately alienates me.

GWEN IFILL: Sixty-four-year-old Udall, who is just completing his first term in the Senate, is one of a handful of Democratic incumbents under sustained political fire this year.

His nemesis? A 40-year-old two- term congressman who says the country, and Colorado, are due for a midterm midcourse correction that only a Republican Senate majority can deliver.

REP. CORY GARDNER: Are you ready to make to make Harry Reid a footnote in history?


GWEN IFILL: Udall’s predicament is especially perilous because of Colorado’s reputation as a notoriously unpredictable state. President Obama has won twice here, but many of the state’s voters see themselves as outliers who are as likely to legalize marijuana as expand oil exploration.

SARAH HOWER: I think the people of Colorado are very independent. And I think as soon as they feel like they’re getting pigeonholed or labeled as more Democratic or more Republican, they’re going to switch. They’re going to move. They don’t like being told who they are.

SEN. MARK UDALL: It’s time to get the vote out.

GWEN IFILL: For voters throughout the West, the name Udall is a known quantity. Mark Udall’s father, Morris, was a senator from Arizona, and he also has two cousins in the Senate now, Utah Republican Mike Lee and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall.

SEN. MARK UDALL: I’m a mountain climber. You all know that. You don’t schmooze your way up a mountain. You don’t trash-talk your way up a mountain. You just climb the doggone thing. So this is a mountain we’re climbing. Let’s go climb it. I’m proud to be your United States senator. I look forward to a very successful election night.

GWEN IFILL: But Gardner treats Udall’s political history as a liability.

REP. CORY GARDNER: He is the Senate. Eighteen years in politics, and he has got two cousins who are senators too.

GWEN IFILL: Ads like this have transformed Udall’s reelection bid into a bitterly contested toss up.

REP. CORY GARDNER: My dad, well, he sells tractors.

GWEN IFILL: Last week, Gardner won the surprise endorsement of the state’s biggest newspaper, which derided the incumbent for running what it described as a one-issue campaign.

SEN. MARK UDALL: You stand up for people’s privacy.

GWEN IFILL: Udall shrugs off the hometown rebuke.

SEN. MARK UDALL: If the Denver Post doesn’t think women’s reproductive rights are important, that’s their decision, but that’s an important part of my campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Norman Provizer, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver, says Gardner has another advantage: a more affable approach to conservative politics.

NORMAN PROVIZER, Metropolitan State University:  He’s one of the more conservative members of the House. But he comes across as kind of a Tea Party member without the steam. And instead of steam, he has a smile. So he’s kind of put a kinder, gentler face on some policies that many people think of as very harsh.

GWEN IFILL: Thomas Unterwagner, who stopped off at a weekend farmer’s market in the midst of a 40-mile bike ride, is supporting Udall. He thinks the senator is in a tight race because of where he works, Washington.

THOMAS UNTERWAGNER: I think most basically the problem is, I think they blame whoever’s in office currently, the incumbent, and whether they, whether they feel — whether they’re economically doing well or not, they still blame the incumbents, for some reason.

GWEN IFILL: Adding to the uncertainty this year is this new twist. Colorado is joining Oregon and Washington State in sending every voter a ballot to cast by mail, a shift that could determine the outcome, as well as what it means to get out the vote.

Both parties say the campaign ground game, door-knocking, phone-calling, debating, could make the difference in an election when the polling place comes to you.

WOMAN: Put two first-class stamps on the ballot and send it back in the mail.

GWEN IFILL: But voter after voter we talked to said they are exasperated by the tone of a campaign that has cluttered the airwaves with negative advertising, paid for by the candidates and by outside groups who support them.

NARRATOR: Udall hasn’t changed Washington. It’s changed him.

LEO SCHETTLER: They go after one another’s personalities, and so sometimes I tend to tune out, you know, to some degree at this time of the year.

MICHELLE JESKE: I already know what I want and what I think is right. So they’re just aggravating.

GWEN IFILL: This Rocky Mountain election also features a running debate about the four E’s: education, energy, the environment and the economy.

But central to the choice between Udall and Gardner, who cleared the Republican field when he decided to enter the race, is whether the victory will tip control of the Senate to the GOP.

Is your campaign about defeating Mark Udall, who is the incumbent senator, or trying to get that majority?

REP. CORY GARDNER: I felt that the one way that we could really change the direction this country was heading wasn’t by staying in that safe Republican House seat sending out fancy press releases about legislation that would never see the light of day because of Harry Reid, but it was about changing the majority, about becoming number 51, so that we could actually do something to move this country forward for the people of this nation.

SEN. MARK UDALL: Well, in the end, this is about Colorado and what I have delivered for the state of Colorado.

GWEN IFILL: And yet this could, the outcome of this race could determine the control of the U.S. Senate.

SEN. MARK UDALL: It certainly could, but my focus has been on making the case to voters here as to what I have done for the state, what I will do in a second term when I’m rehired.

GWEN IFILL: But for many Colorado voters, the problem is neither Udall nor Gardner. It’s Washington itself.

JUDY BROWN: I think, Congress is such a mess that I don’t think anybody is getting what they really want, and I don’t really know how to fix it.

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean that you might not vote this time?

JUDY BROWN: Oh, no, I will vote. I always vote.

GWEN IFILL: The candidates meet in their fifth and final debate on Wednesday.

You can watch my full interviews with Mark Udall and Cory Gardner on our Rundown.