Ask Democrats or D.C. political strategists about Udall, and their views are entirely different. They see an independent voice similar to Gov. John Hickenlooper, a respected environmentalist, and an experienced politician challenging a conservative who was handpicked by party insiders.
But the outcome of the Nov. 4 election most likely will be up to independent voters as to whether Udall or Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner deserves the right to represent Colorado for the next six years in the U.S. Senate.
Early polls indicate that Udall has a slight advantage over Gardner, but one in ten of those surveyed remains undecided.
For Gardner, the main obstacle with voters is geographic — the Republican is running in a state where voters backed President Barack Obama in both presidential elections.
It’s an uphill battle for any Republican challenger, says Larry Sabato, president of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“If you have a wave (of Republican victories), Colorado could get sucked in. There will be a breeze, but a breeze probably isn’t enough for Gardner. He needs a wave,” Sabato said.
In a column for Politico on May 13, Sabato wrote that Gardner would win in three of ten national scenarios. Each of the three depended on the GOP picking up all seven Senate races in states that Republican nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012 as well as states that President Obama won — a tropical storm in which the GOP grabs two seats in Democratic-leaning states, a wave in which the GOP gains four seats in Democratic states, or a full tsunami in which Republicans grabs seven seats in Democratic states.
For Udall, the main challenge is voter apathy — the Democrat is running in an off year from a presidential election when the party’s chief constituencies are less motivated to vote.
For example, likely Democratic voters such as minorities, unmarried women, and young people ages 18 to 29 accounted for 24 of 50 voters in the 2012 presidential campaign, but are expected to account for only 21 of 50 voters in 2014, according to a study by the Lake Research Partners and Voter Participation Center.
Colorado Democratic strategists recognize the problem but are confident they can solve it.
“It’s historically difficult to get voters to turn out in the second year of a president’s term and Democratic base voters need to be reminded how crucial this November’s election is to the issues they care about,” said Jill Hannauer, president of Project New America in Denver, a progressive firm planning to campaign for Udall through independent expenditures.
“But if it can be done anywhere, it’s Colorado,” Hannauer said. “Our state created a national model for progressive infrastructure. It began really in 2000 and 2002 and resulted in the takeover of the state legislature in 2004. It’s about voter registration, voter communication, education of voters is key on public policy.”
Hannauer acknowledges and expresses appreciation for the help Colorado Democrats would receive from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whose chairman is Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and whose top staff members made their names politically known by pulling off a come-from-behind victory in 2010.
“The fact that Guy Cecil (the DSCC executive director) knows Colorado very well is great,” she said. DSCC officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Based on multiple interviews, the narrative that national and state Democrats plan to tell voters about Gardner and Udall has already been composed.
The first part runs directly contrary to the GOP’s story that Udall is a clone of Obama whose votes in 2013 alligned with the president 99 percent of the time. Colorado Democrats will portray Udall as his own man and a close ally of Hickenlooper.
The choice is strategic; According to a March survey from the liberal-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, Obama had a 43 percent-to-53 percent approval to disapproval rating, while Hickenlooper had a 48 percent-to-41-percent approval rating.
“Certainly, there’s a very good relationship with Gov. Hickenlooper,” Mike Stratton, a longtime Colorado Democratic strategist and an informal adviser to Udall, said in an interview. “I think there will be a lot of times on the podiums with those two together. I know conservatives are beating the hell out of Obama in (other) Senate races. The problem is people know Mark Udall. These are people in the middle, independents, Republicans, and Democrats. They know Mark Udall is Mark Udall, not Barack Obama.”
Stratton also disputed that Udall has acted as a rubberstamp for Obama. “Look at the NSA stuff, the (Edward) Snowden stuff. These are troublesome issues, and Udall has distanced himself from the administration. That’s typical of Udall’s behavior. He’s his own person,” he said.
Similarly, Hannauer suggested the state’s independent voters share a history with Udall that Gardner does not. “I think Senator Udall knows the state well, and even more important, state voters know Senator Udall well. Put aside the label of Democrat, Republican, or Independent, these voters are fiercely independent and choose the person not the party,” she said.
The second part of the Democratic narrative ties Gardner to pro-life congressional Republicans, which they say is at odds with the views of Colorado voters outside of his congressional district in the eastern part of the state.
“Clearly on social issues, Cory Gardner is absolutely too far right for our state including moderate Republican women,” Hannauer said. “Gardner’s problem is voters don’t know much about him outside his district and he doesn’t want them to, because his positions are out of touch with the majority of voters on a host of issues including economic ones such as public education, infrastructure, and attracting jobs to our state.”
The third part of the Democratic narrative is that Udall’s record on energy and environmental matters veers less from the mainstream than Republicans portray.
Although Udall is pushing legislation to allow more exportation of liquefied natural gas, he has not taken a position on numerous ballot issues vying for the November ballot to effectively ban the production of the gas through hydraulic fracturing.
However, Democratic strategists maintain that voters appreciate Udall’s commitment to green causes.
“Senator Udall has been outspoken, and that’s what voters want. On fracking, you know what, voters want authenticity,” Hannauer said.
Strategy and scenarios aside, with polls at a virtual stalemate and party voters aligned, the election outcome likely rests with the state’s one million independent voters, which outnumbers the Democrat’s 902,441 voters, and the Republican’s 944,542 voters.
“I think the race will be close and we’ll need independent voters. This is who is going to put us over the top,” Hannauer said.