Udall is a co-sponsor on the Senate bill in response to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democrats want to make Rep. Cory Gardner the next Todd Akin — but it’s not so easy.
The Colorado Republican is challenging Sen. Mark Udall and putting a pivotal race in play for his party, which must net six seats to win control of the Senate. In response, Democrats have focused their attacks on Gardner on women’s health issues — a topic that has proved to be a land mine for some Republican hopefuls in past races.
On Wednesday, the Senate is expected to have a procedural vote on a measure that would effectively nullify the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, which allowed some employers to not offer birth control coverage in health insurance plans. The vote will likely fail, but it’s given Udall a prime opportunity to serve as one of his party’s top voices on the issue in Washington and home in Colorado.
“Several days ago, I was home in the great state of Colorado and I stood shoulder to shoulder with experts in women’s health care who joined me to highlight how the Hobby Lobby decision is already negatively affecting women in our state,” Udall said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “One Denver-based OB-GYN explained how physicians might now have to consider an employer’s religious beliefs when making medical recommendations.”
Last week, Udall skipped a fundraiser with President Barack Obama in Colorado to stay in Washington, D.C., where he stood beside Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards, among others, as the legislation was introduced.
Udall’s race has become increasingly competitive. A new NBC News/Marist Poll of 914 registered voters showed Udall leading Gardner, 48 percent to 41 percent, with 10 percent of respondents undecided. It was recently rated as a Tilts Democratic contest by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
Republicans have historically had a turnout advantage in midterm elections, but Democrats have bet women’s health issues will boost female voters at the polls. Specifically, Udall’s strategy targets swing voters, who are predominately suburban women, between the ages of 30 and 55, according to several Democratic consultants.
Outside groups have also taken up the cause for Udall. Senate Majority PAC released a new ad Tuesday accusing Gardner of trying to “redefine rape,” to exclude statutory rape and victims who were drugged and then raped.
Democrats have also targeted Gardner on Colorado’s proposed personhood amendment, which would include unborn fetuses under the definition of “person” and “child” in the state’s criminal code — effectively banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Gardner, who represents a strongly conservative district, had previously expressed his support for the amendment to the state constitution and is the co-sponsor of a congressional bill to enact it. In 2010, Colorado voters rejected the personhood amendment in a ballot initiative, with 70 percent opposing it.
In March, Gardner said he had a change of heart on the measure and declared he could no longer support it because it would restrict access to certain types of contraception.
But the initiative is back on the ballot in November, and Udall’s team has put the issue front and center in his campaign.
“Todd Akin may not be in Congress anymore, but his followers like Congressman Gardner are carrying on his radical crusade to roll back women’s health care options,” Udall press secretary Kristin Lynch said in a statement this week.
Akin lost his bid to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in 2012 after he made some widely panned comments about rape to a local television news program. He’s since become the bogeyman for the GOP’s support gap among female voters.
In Colorado, Democrats used a similar playbook to help Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., defeat Republican Ken Buck in 2010. Bennet won the female vote by double digits, edging Buck in a wave year for Republicans around the country.
“Mark Udall obviously has had a pretty thin hand to play,” said Republican Josh Penry, former state Senate Minority Leader, who called the attack “stale and untrue.”
Since Bennet’s victory, Penry said, “it’s been used for everyone from the top of the ticket to dog catcher.”
Ultimately, trying to reprise Bennet’s 2010 strategy will not work because “Cory Gardner is a very different animal,” said Brad Todd, a consultant for his campaign.
Republicans have hailed Gardner as a promising potential statewide candidate since his election in 2010 (not many Republicans said the same about Akin during his six terms in Congress).
GOP operatives also noted Udall’s campaign pulled out the big guns earlier than usual, running negative ads that feature the senator making the allegations.
They are “pulling out an October tactic in July,” said Patrick Davis, a Colorado Republican consultant.
Colorado Democratic consultant Craig Hughes acknowledged that both sides had been “far more engaged in a far more negative tone and far earlier than in other Senate races.” A big part of that, he said, was the early onslaught of outside spending in the race.
According to figures from OpenSecrets.org, outside groups have spent more than twice as much attacking Gardner as Udall.