WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Udall emerged from the Senate cloakroom Thursday in the northeastern side of the Capitol and stepped into an ornate reception room elegantly lit with crystal chandeliers.
A reporter asked to talk with him, but before the Colorado Democrat could complete his response, a female aide interrupted: “He can’t speak right now,” she said.
The senior senator approached a small group of people wearing one-day credentials, quickly had his picture taken, then left the Capitol with a new aide in tow.
The reporter caught up with Udall again as he raced down the marble steps and asked questions about health care and energy issues, but was again declined.
“I’m running to an intelligence committee,” Udall said and quickly walked away.
Udall’s reluctance to discuss politically sensitive topics with reporters at the Capitol has not gone unnoticed.
Earlier this week, a reporter for Environment & Energy Publishing noted Udall’s refusal to answer questions after leaving a Democratic policy luncheon about his amendment to a Ukraine aid bill that would increase exportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The Senate later declined to attach Udall’s measure to the bill.
“Udall deflects my questions on his LNG amendment as a gaggle of reporters chase him out of lunch,” Nick Juliano tweeted on Tuesday.
Politico reported on March 12 that Udall declined to discuss his controversial December 2009 vote for the Affordable Care Act. Udall told the Capitol Hill newspaper that he preferred to talk on the telephone to offer a “coherent” response, but his aides did not make him available for that interview.
Udall has reason to be cautious. He won his Senate seat by six points in 2008 and is expected to face a close race against Republican Rep. Cory Gardner this fall. He has already been the target of television ads from Americans for Prosperity for his vote in favor of Obamacare.
Committing a verbal gaffe that alienates voters is the last thing a politician in Udall’s position wants. In the words of one Democratic strategist, “Limit your exposure to the extent you can, but defend what you have to.”
But Udall’s reluctance to talk with reporters at the Capitol about the politically sensitive topics like health care and energy has drawn bipartisan criticism.
“As much as I sympathize with members having to run in the current media environment, where you are only one misstep away from a YouTube moment that could get you some unwanted publicity, I just don’t think a strategy like that makes a lot of sense,” said the veteran Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly.
“On health care for example, just hit the key provisions of the bill, which poll well, and pledge to try to fix what may or may not be working. If you voted for it, you own it, whether you like it or not,” the Democratic strategist said.
A Senate Republican staffer, speaking after Udall ducked reporters on Tuesday, put the matter more bluntly. “He’s on the defense and he’s on the run,” the aide said, referring to Udall’s vote for Obamacare and against the Keystone XL pipeline.
Mike Saccone, Udall’s spokesman, disputed the premise that the senior senator avoids taking tough, unscripted questions. “That’s an incredibly selective reading of recent history,” he said in an email.
Saccone pointed to several interviews Udall has given in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Udall gave a 10-minute phone interview with KOA-AM. On March 20, Udall spoke in Colorado with a reporter from the Associated Press and Politico. In addition, Saccone pointed to interviews Udall has given on intelligence and national security matters.
Yet each interview followed a pattern: Either Udall felt pressure to discuss the politically sensitive topics of his positions on health care and energy, he declined to give specific answers, or he took unscripted questions on national security, which few voters care about.
The Politico story was a profile of the Colorado Senate race and Udall did not address any issues before Congress. The Associated Press story on the Udall family’s health-care coverage noted that, “Udall did not provide further details or documentation on his (health) plan.”
As for questions about the National Security Agency, voters say the issue matters to them far less than health care and energy. A January Quinnipiac poll found that 18 percent of voters listed health care and 31 percent listed the economy, jobs, or unemployment as their top priority for President Obama and the Congress in 2014.
Intelligence issues, which prompted Udall’s remark Thursday that he could not talk, were not listed.