Colorado, A Purple State Trending Democratic, Site Of Key Senate Race

One thing Republicans have going for them in the battle for the Senate is that most of the closely contested races are in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012.  In varying degrees of vulnerability, states like South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina and Alaska are considered prime Republican pick-up opportunities.  President Obama lost all of them, some by huge margins.

So it surprised some when the terrain began to expand to include several Obama states as well.  Polls in Colorado, for example, began to show a competitive Senate race there, where Mark Udall, a Democrat elected six years ago, is seeking a second term.

Colorado is the quintessential purple state, its Democratic bastions of Denver and Boulder surrounded by a vast sea of red.  But if it’s trending anywhere, it’s toward the Democrats.  In 2010, when much of the nation was voting Republican, Colorado elected another Democrat to the Senate, Michael Bennet, and voted John Hickenlooper to the governorship.

Udall was a clear favorite for re-election this year until Rep. Cory Gardner (R) got in the race.  A strong conservative with a friendly demeanor, the charismatic Gardner managed to elbow other prospective GOP candidates out of the way, a rare feat in a party often wracked by “establishment vs. tea party” squabbles.  At 39, Gardner has argued that Udall, who is 63, is out of touch with mainstream voters and should make way for new leadership.  Polls have shown it to be a tight race.  Polls show voters most concerned about the economy giving Gardner the advantage.

But it hasn’t yet reached the “tossup” stage.  With Democrats focusing on women and women’s issues, they are throwing the kitchen sink at Gardner, going after him on abortion and contraception and making it clear that his election would be bad for women.  Dems are especially hitting him for having once supported — but since disavowed — a “personhood” ballot measure, which would define a fertilized egg as a person and basically make abortion illegal.  When Gardner got into the race he said he no longer supported personhood.  But it’s a flip-flop that Democrats are highlighting in TV ads across the state.  And several pro-life activists have made it clear that they are disappointed with Gardner’s change of heart.

Female voters were crucial to Bennet’s surprise victory in 2010, when he focused on the “GOP’s war on women” theme and beat Ken Buck (R) by two points.

Of course, there are other issues at play here as well, such as the economy, immigration, fracking and even marijuana, which Colorado has legalized and is still being debated in the state.  And guns.  After the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed gun control laws last year, two Democrats fell victim to a recall election; the GOP is now one seat away from controlling the state Senate.  It is generally thought that gun rights activists are more determined to come out and vote than those backing gun control.

And in a state that is divided between the energy industry and the environment, Democrats found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with two anti-fracking ballot measures strongly supported by Rep. Jared Polis (D), a liberal from Boulder who poured a lot of his own money into the fight.  Both Udall and Hickenlooper opposed the measures, which would have given local governments the right to decide whether they could oppose drilling for natural gas.  The ballot measures would have guaranteed a strong response from the state’s energy interests in one of the top natural gas producing states in the nation, and which had the potential of energizing a strong Republican turnout at the polls.  Gardner, in fact, had been using the issue to paint Udall as anti-drilling and bad for job growth and the economy.  Polis, backed by the state’s environmentalists, was determined to push for his ballot measures, even if it caused a schism among his fellow Democrats.

But Hickenlooper managed to get the anti-fracking measures off the ballot, pushing it off to a commission that will look into the issue (after the elections, of course).  It was a move that the Udall camp (and many other Democrats) greeted with a sigh of relief.

And then there is the matter of immigration.  Colorado is one of the few tight Senate races this year where the Hispanic vote could prove crucial.  But polls show Udall and Gardner basically tied on the issue.

Obama carried Colorado in both 2008 and 2012 — the first time Democrats carried the state in back-to-back presidential contests since 1932 and 1936.  But his numbers here, like elsewhere, have fallen.  The question is whether Democrats, like Udall, will fall along with him.

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