WASHINGTON – Democratic control of the U.S. Senate – already tenuous as a result of retirements and stiff Republican challenges – has become even more perilous as a result of recent events in Colorado.
In what amounts to a game of trading places, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a Republican who intended to challenge incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) in the November election, dropped out of the race to run for the congressional seat currently held by Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). Gardner, in turn, jumped into the Senate race, providing Colorado Republicans with a significantly better chance of capturing Udall’s seat.
Gardner, 39, of Yuma, who won a second term with 58.4 percent of the vote in his Republican-leaning district in 2012, is, according to Buck, “in the strongest position” to defeat Udall, who finds himself tarnished by his association with President Obama, whose popularity continues to plummet, and his support for the Affordable Care Act.
A Quinnipiac University Poll, taken in February before the switcheroo, showed Colorado voters split over Udall, with 44 percent saying they approved of his performance and 44 percent giving him a thumbs-down. At the same time, Udall held a less-than-impressive three-point lead over Buck, 45 percent to 42 percent, who was considered an inferior candidate to Gardner.
An incumbent polling below 50 percent usually means trouble.
“The air is getting thinner for Democrats in the Rocky Mountains,” said Colorado Republican Committee Chairman Ryan Call. “President Obama and Sen. Udall’s broken promises and failed leadership have caused Coloradans more grief than they can manage.”
National political analysts have noted the change. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, has moved the race from “likely Democratic” to “leans Democratic,” commenting that “Gardner should give Udall a stiffer challenge than the other Republicans in the field.”
Colorado Democrats immediately pounced, condemning the “backroom deal” cooked up between Buck and Gardner, asserting that the GOP is looking to further strengthen its ties with the Tea Party movement.
“Given Republicans’ back-room wheeling and dealing, Coloradans will see that Cory Gardner is simply a Ken Buck-radical who is neck deep in Washington sleaze,” said Rick Palacio, the Colorado Democratic Party chairman. “Gardner is just another reckless House Republican when it comes to dismantling Social Security and Medicare, banning abortion and many types of birth control and irresponsibly putting our economy at risk to advance his political agenda.”
In a statement, the Udall campaign acknowledged Gardner, with a campaign war chest in excess of $1 million, will prove formidable.
“Cory supported the twice-defeated ‘personhood’ ballot initiative to outlaw abortion — even in the cases of rape and incest — and ban many forms of birth control,” the statement said. “He voted for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which would privatize Medicare, slash education funding, and give millionaires a $125,000 tax cut. He also joined a group of Republicans that proposed a plan to privatize Social Security.”
Gardner, the campaign said, also opposed overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the government’s ban on gays serving openly in the military.
“We must stop Cory’s momentum dead in its tracks,” it said.
In announcing his candidacy, Gardner warned that “the United States that we know is fading” and insisted “this fight is about the future, for our families, children and grandchildren.”
“Amidst big government boondoggles and unaccountable bureaucracies, the people of this country find themselves working harder and harder each and every day only to see the promise of opportunity slip further and further from their reach,” Gardner said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Udall, Gardner said, “broke his promise to the American people, to the people of Colorado” by “failing to get government out of the way.”
The incumbent also “failed to stand up to Harry Reid,” the Senate Democratic leader from Nevada, Gardner said. “He has voted to increase taxes, infringe on the 2nd Amendment, to cut seniors and Medicare Advantage. He cut military pensions and then had the audacity to decry the very cuts he voted for.”
Colorado over the past few years has proved difficult to peg politically. It twice supported Obama. But prior to 2008 Colorado voters went Republican in every presidential election dating back to 1968, with the exception of 1992 when the state provided a plurality to former President Bill Clinton. Four years later it switched off Clinton and sided with former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, of Kansas.
Currently, Republicans hold a 4-3 edge in the state’s congressional delegation. But both senators – Udall and Michael Bennett — are Democrats, as is Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is seeking re-election this year and carries a 53 percent approval rating, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
Colorado, therefore, might be the purplest of the few remaining purple states. But there are seemingly plenty of problems confronting Democrats this year.
The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, is very unpopular in Libertarian-leaning Colorado, with 60 percent of those surveyed in a November Quinnipiac poll voicing disapproval. Udall was a strong supporter of the legislation and Republicans have exhibited little reluctance linking him to the legislation.
Despite carrying Colorado in 2012, Obama’s star has dimmed considerably in the Rocky Mountain State, with 60 percent of those polled expressing distaste for the administration. Colorado Republicans reacted by asserting that Udall has voted the White House line 99 percent of the time during his tenure.
The apparent tightening of the Colorado race is sure to produce additional angina for Democrats desperately trying to maintain control of the Senate. With Republicans almost sure of retaining a majority in the House, events could swamp the party over the ensuing two years.
Democrats are at risk, ironically, because of their success in 2008, when Obama swept into the White House. The party gained eight net seats in the upper chamber that year, taking 20 of the 35 available seats.
Now they have to defend all the seats they won six years ago in addition to trying to pick off at least a couple of those won by Republicans. Of the 20 Democratic seats up this year, seven are in states carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. In six of those states Romney won by double-digit margins.
Several Democratic incumbents – Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Sen. Mark Begich (D-Ark.), and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) – are either behind, tied or slightly ahead in their re-election efforts. Republicans are favored to win a pair of seats currently held by Democrats who are retiring, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).
The new challenge faced by Udall in Colorado makes the Democrats’ task that much more difficult.