In a dramatic pivot to the left, Udall made it known that he’s voting against legislation supporting the Keystone XL pipeline at Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing, and what’s more, he’s appearing with President Barack Obama at a July 9 fundraiser — in Denver.
Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli called it “a strange day for news about Senator Mark Udall,” while Colorado Peak Politics ran the puckish headline: “BREAKING: Mark Udall Gives Up on Senate Re-Election.”
It’s entirely possible that Udall did give up — not on his reelection, but on his strategy of playing to the center by casting himself as a moderate.
That tactic was increasingly looking like a long-shot, given his support for Obamacare, his 99 percent voting record with the president, his League of Conservation Voters endorsement, and his ties to climate-change billionaire Tom Steyer.
Polls have shown Udall up one to three points over Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, but Ciruli noted that at least one recent poll—cited by Udall himself in a fundraising plea—says the Democratic incumbent is actually trailing Gardner by 2 points.
“I find it very strange that he would cite a poll saying, ‘We’re losing,’” said Ciruli. “On the one hand, it might help you fundraise, but it completely changes the narrative.”
If accurate, then the poll shows Udall has failed to budge unaffiliated voters despite months of touting an “all of the above” energy approach and the benefits of natural gas. Meanwhile, that strategy risks alienating his natural constituency: environmentalists and the state’s burgeoning anti-fracking movement.
On the other hand, by unleashing his inner liberal, Udall may be able to play the turnout card by igniting the left-wing base. That segment of the Colorado Democratic Party is certainly starved for attention, given that Gov. John Hickenlooper and other top Democrats have weighed in on the side of the oil and gas industry in the state’s ongoing fracking battle.
“They [the Udall campaign] definitely believe that the most important job is to turn out the base,” said Ciruli. “It’s possible he feels his image as the friendly Westerner is not moving the needle, and he needs to sharpen the differences between he and Cory, and that means the environment.”
It sounds like a sensible strategy until you consider that no other vulnerable Senate Democrat is trying it. Even Democrats in relatively Obama-friendly states like New Hampshire and Virginia aren’t allowing the president to get within a mile of them on the campaign trail.
In North Carolina, which went for Obama in 2008 but not 2012, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has been buffeted by criticism merely for saying in March that the president was “always welcome” to campaign with her, even though he hasn’t.
There’s a reason for that: The president’s approval rating is hovering at 40 percent, while his disapproving rating has moved to 52 percent. Even his favorability rating, which has always been higher, hit an all-time low last week, with just 47 percent of those saying they viewed him favorably and 52 percent unfavorably, according to tracking polls by the Gallup Poll.
But most of those 40 percent are staunch Democrats, the kinds that turn out in favor of Democratic candidates like Udall no matter what.
And Udall is in a different position than the other half-dozen Senate Democrats fighting for their political survival. Most of them are in red states. Colorado may still be a swing state, but Obama did win here in both 2008 and 2012.
Colorado also has a political wild card in its anti-fracking movement. A shift to the left allows Udall to ride the thousands of anti-fracking voters who will undoubtedly turnout en masse in November. Even if Democratic Rep. Jared Polis pulls his anti-fracking proposals, another local-control measure, Initiative 75, is expected to qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot.
“It goes with the theme that the liberal wing, the environmental wing of the party is dispirited because the Democratic leadership is pro-gas and oil, while the grassroots are against it,” said Ciruli.
Analysts also noted that Udall is minimizing the damage of a presidential visit by holding the fundraiser in July, when voters aren’t necessarily focused on the campaign.
“I think what he’s decided is he’ll take the short term political pain for bringing in an unpopular president to Colorado in exchange for the cash he can raise,” said Republican strategist Dick Wadhams. “I don’t think you’ll see Barack Obama barnstorming in Colorado in October.”
Ciruli agreed the timing of Obama’s visit is key. For one, there’s still time to make another shift back to the center if the move to the left doesn’t pan out.
“It’s early,” Ciruli said. “You can do things now you can’t do later.”