Photo Illustration by 731; Mountains: Alamy; Udall: Getty Images; Gardner: Getty Images

The Battle for Colorado Is the Battle for America

Why the dead-heat Senate race between Mark Udall and Cory Gardner is a preview of the 2016 national election.

Mark Udall, the Democratic senator running for reelection in Colorado this fall, is a scion of a famous political family and the Platonic ideal of what a Western politician is supposed to look like. His father, Mo, was a longtime Arizona congressman and a 1976 Democratic presidential candidate; his cousin Tom is a senator in neighboring New Mexico. On a Wednesday afternoon in late September, Udall strode into Mickey’s Top Sirloin, a sports-themed steakhouse just off the highway in Denver, to meet the local contingent of Sportsmen for Udall, Democratic-leaning hunters and fishermen. Udall was decked out in a dress shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He left the bolo tie at home but brought along an identically dressed staffer, a sort of Mini-Me of regional political pandering.

Udall is tall and rangy, with thick gray hair and eyebrows that appear to be dusted with snow. He looks every bit the rugged, taciturn Coloradan: You imagine him somewhere up in the Rockies, praising the clean, crisp taste of Coors Banquet beer. Playing to type, Udall launched into a sermonette about how he’d recently finished hiking the last of the state’s 100 highest peaks. At the summit, he told the crowd, he gazed out across “the glory that is Colorado” and suddenly felt moved to ­“recommit myself to do everything possible to protect our special way of life.” ­Everyone nodded approvingly.

He briskly ticked through the bills he’d worked on to help preserve this glory, showing off his fluency in the arcane dialect of land-use acronyms and salting his patter with friendly jibes at local big shots in the audience, whom he addressed by their first names.

Ordinarily, a politician so well suited to his state might expect to have a seat for life, as his father did. Indeed, Udall had been coasting to ­reelection. Then in February, Representative Cory Gardner, a talented Republican upstart from the rural Eastern Plains, jumped into the race ­unexpectedly, and the GOP establishment cleared the field to accommodate him.

Colorado Republicans have suffered mightily in recent elections as a once solidly red state has trended blue. Barack Obama carried it twice. The party’s misfortune stems mainly from its struggles to field good candidates. In 2010, when the Tea Party swept ­Republicans into office across the country, Colorado’s ­Democratic junior senator, Michael Bennet, a novice ­recently ­appointed to fill the seat, won narrowly after his Republican opponent made odd cracks about women and said voters should support him because “I do not wear high heels.” With Gardner in the race, however, things are different: Colorado’s Senate race is a dead heat—or, in the urgent prose of Udall’s fundraising e-mails, “Nate Silver’s ­ election analysis is calling this race the most competitive in the country!” Udall is fighting for survival, and at Mickey’s he implored the sportsmen to help him.

“The main plea and request I have for you guys is to help me get out the vote,” he said. “This is no longer just a discussion you might have with a neighbor at home or in the workplace. It’s now time for all of you to have your voices heard.”

Udall took a series of questions that had an undercurrent of polite anxiety and centered on Gardner’s deficit-­cutting plan to sell off public lands. “Senator Udall,” said Steve Torbit, a retired ­executive of the National Wildlife Foundation, “I don’t think people know that public lands are at risk, whether they’re hunters, hikers, skiers, mountain bikers. If you can get that message out, we’ll get more people backing us. But I just have not heard that message.” When I spoke to him afterward, Torbit blurted out what anyone in Colorado with a TV can see: “His ads are all about abortion!”

He has a point. Colorado’s Senate race has upended Tip O’Neill’s old line about all politics being local. Here, all politics is national. Gardner is a highly charismatic  politician with one gigantic liability:  He’s a member of the deeply unpopular ­Republican House. Even Democratic  ads that touch on local issues, such as the floods that ravaged Colorado last fall, nationalize his candidacy by reminding viewers that he voted to shut down the government 10 days later. “It’s a question of, do you want to import the politics of the House of Representatives to Colorado?” Udall told me one day in his office.

But the main line of attack is Gardner’s record on birth control and abortion, which he opposes even in cases of rape and incest. “For the last six or eight years, issues of choice and women’s health have been a signifier of whether someone’s in the mainstream,” says Guy Cecil, the ­executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). “It’s the entry point to make a much larger case: If someone is this extreme on abortion, they’re more likely to be extreme on a host of other issues.” So critical are women voters to Democrats’ fortunes in November that a recent ad features Udall dressed like a rancher up in the Rockies, but instead of talking about his love of the outdoors, he’s talking about abortion—and without hiding behind euphemisms like “freedom” or “choice.” “How is it,” he asks, “that we’re still debating a woman’s access to abortion or birth control? For most of us, those debates got settled by the last generation.”

Liberal super PACs such as the one funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer have picked up on this cue, producing strange ads that attack Gardner on birth control before pivoting to condemn his environmental record. Republicans have responded. Karl Rove’s issue-­advocacy group, Crossroads GPS, cut an ad featuring a group of concerned women wondering why all Udall ever talks about is abortion. But Gardner’s own ­response was the most revealing: In June, to blunt the attacks, he called for birth control pills to be made available over the counter.

Despite his Western appeal, Udall has a big problem of his own: Barack Obama. In a recent poll (PDF), Coloradans preferred Udall’s positions on most issues but still favored Gardner by two points. The reason? Obama’s dismal ­approval rating (35 percent). Udall has tried to stress his ­independence by citing his criticism of the ­National ­Security Agency and the CIA. But as an incumbent senator, he has a hard time explaining away years of voting mainly along party lines. Over the past several decades, ­partisan polarization has led Democrats and Republicans to vote more like their fellow party members. Gardner usually doesn’t let 10 minutes pass without reminding ­everyone within earshot that “Mark Udall votes with President Obama 99 percent of the time.” (A 2013 CQ Roll Call study of Senate votes backs up this charge.) In July, when Obama flew to Colorado to raise money for him, Udall found a reason to leave the state.

Like any hotly contested Senate race this cycle, Colorado’s is critical because it could end up determining which party controls the Senate for Obama’s final two years.

But it will also tell us a lot about where the parties stand heading into the 2016 presidential election. Colorado’s Senate race has become a presidential campaign in miniature, with two strong candidates who are both career politicians facing off over mainly national issues, as billionaires on the left (Steyer) and the right (the Koch brothers) saturate the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads.

Politically, Colorado is a slightly ­exaggerated version of America. Because the state makes it so easy to place initiatives on the ballot, it’s a testing ground for highly charged national issues. “We’re a petri dish for progressive politics,” says Ted Trimpa, a Denver lawyer and Democratic political consultant. “We’ve done gun control, marijuana legalization, driver’s licenses,  and in-state tuition for undocumented ­immigrants, and we’re the first state in the country to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas ­operations.” That’s true for conservative issues, too. Next month, Coloradans will vote for the third time in six years on a “personhood” initiative granting full legal rights to embryos.

Yet it isn’t just the contours of the state’s politics that mirror the country’s; its economics and demographics do, too. Colorado  has a complex, advanced economy. The state is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. And unlike other swing states with close Senate races (Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina), it has a large Hispanic population that’s become a crucial voting bloc. All this combines to make Colorado an uncommonly ­accurate gauge of ­national political sentiment. In 2008, when Obama beat John McCain by seven points, he won Colorado by eight. In 2012 he beat Mitt Romney 51 percent to 48 percent and carried the state 51-47.

“You look for signs and tells overall on how you do here in Colorado,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican ­National Committee, who showed up at a Mexican restaurant in Denver to campaign for Gardner at a gathering of Hispanic  GOP leaders. “I think this will tell us a lot.” It turns out that this is a rare point of ­bipartisan agreement. Says the DSCC’s Cecil: “Colorado is not just a bellwether for the next presidential election but for how we’ll do across the country this year.”

On a bright Saturday morning in the dusty agricultural town of Brighton, Gardner arrived for a meet-and-greet with local Republicans at a restaurant called ­Pinocchio’s, which for a politician is either a bold display of confidence or a cosmically funny gaffe. With Gardner, it’s hard to tell.

In Washington, Gardner is considered a comer. Until February, everyone assumed he was grooming himself for a run at House leadership, which would have made a lot of sense. He’s young (40), ambitious, and equipped with a blinding optimism that contrasts favorably with the dour, prickly Republican leaders of today. No matter the audience or occasion, Gardner’s public bearing is that of a man who’s just found out he’s won the lottery. “We have to be optimistic,” he says. “The ­Republican Party has to be the party of optimism and giving our children a better starting point. We have to make sure we’re broader, more inclusive, and reaching out to every community.”

Gardner says he decided to give up his House seat and run for the Senate because he was tired of Democrats blocking GOP bills. “Look at the number of bills we’ve passed in the House,” he says. “I didn’t go there to send out press releases. We’ve passed over 300 bills, many of them with bipartisan support, but none are moving in the Senate because Harry Reid won’t bring them up. And Harry Reid is there because of people like Mark Udall.”

Another likely factor in Gardner’s ­decision was the tail wind Colorado ­Republicans were expecting from oil and gas companies, thanks to a series of ballot initiatives, backed by Representative Jared Polis of Boulder, a liberal Democrat, that would ban or limit several forms of hydraulic fracturing. This threat to a $29 billion state ­industry was expected to elicit many millions of dollars in ads from oil companies frantic to preserve their drilling rights—ads that would benefit Republican candidates while driving up media costs for Democrats. But in August, after coming under intense pressure from his party, Polis withdrew his initiatives.

Gardner still has plenty of financial support, but his main weapon is his own charm. “He’s a tremendous communicator who can relate to a wider variety of people than candidates we’ve had in the past,” says Troy Whitmore, a power company executive who turned up to support his old Colorado State University fraternity brother. “I think he moderates well, and we need that in the GOP.”

And yet moderating has proved a struggle. Because Gardner was gunning for House leadership, he’s voted as a hard-right conservative. Last year, ­National Journal ranked him as the 10th-most-­conservative member of the House, putting him to the right of such Tea Party stalwarts as Steve King and Michele Bachmann. If anyone in the crowd of elderly white voters at ­Pinocchio’s found him too conservative, they didn’t say so. He seemed to register as the quintessential nice young man. “You can’t help but like him,” ­conceded Trimpa, the Democratic lawyer, “even though he’s to the right of Tom Tancredo on ­immigration.”

Still, the sudden shift from wooing conservatives to appealing to moderates and independents has been tricky. Nothing ­illustrates this better than Gardner’s struggle to switch positions on ­personhood. In 2008 and 2010, he supported Colorado’s personhood amendments (both were ­defeated). He currently co-sponsors a federal personhood bill, the Life at Conception Act, that would give legal protection to the “preborn” from “the moment of fertilization.”

One reason opponents object to such laws is that they appear to outlaw hormonal  forms of birth control, such as the pill, that prevent fertilized eggs from ­implanting in the uterine wall. In March, after joining the Senate race, Gardner ­declared that he would not support Colorado’s latest personhood initiative, basing his decision on the rather incredible claim that he had only recently grasped its full effect. “As I’ve learned more about it,” he told the Associated Press, “I’ve come to the conclusion it can ban common forms of contraception.” Yet he’s still a co-sponsor of the federal bill.

When asked how he reconciles these positions, Gardner’s smile faded a bit and he replied: “Even Senator Udall, when he changed his position on gay marriage, has said that a good-faith change of position should be considered a virtue, not a vice.” While true, this didn’t address what appear to be contradictory positions. I tried again:

What’s the difference between Colorado’s personhood amendment and the federal one you still co-sponsor?

“Well, one’s an amendment to the Colorado constitution, another one is a bill. They are two different pieces of legislation, they have two different ­consequences, their language is

I don’t ­understand the difference in consequences, besides the geographic one.

“I’d encourage you to look at it. They’re two procedurally different postures. They’re legislatively in different postures.”

But they have the same effect, so what’s the difference?

“Well, what they’re trying to say that the federal bill would do is all about politics. And that’s simply what Senator Udall has tried to do this entire campaign, is to say something that’s simply not true. Look, he is focused solely on social issues—”

I don’t disagree, but the point they make is that the personhood amendment would outlaw certain kinds of [birth control], so—

“And that’s why I oppose it.”

Right, but at the federal level it would ­presumably do the same thing.

“If you look at the law, it would not.”

Several medical organizations disagree. Whatever Gardner’s rationale for dropping his support of the state measure but not the federal one, endorsing ­over-the-counter birth control may assuage voters troubled by Democratic claims that he’s “too extreme for Colorado”—a charge sure to intensify in the weeks ahead. But for now, Gardner has managed to distance himself enough from House Republicans to grab a narrow lead over Udall in most recent polls.

If he can hold on to win a state Obama carried twice, it’s a good bet Gardner will not only break the Democrats’ grip on the Senate but also give his own beleaguered party a road map for the years ahead. “If you look at what’s happened in Colorado,” he says, “there was a period where Republicans may have overreached. Now we see where the Democrats have overreached. And when that happens, the people of Colorado react.” If they do decide Democrats have gone too far too fast, it will be an ominous sign for Hillary Clinton, or whoever is the 2016 nominee, since most Democrats support gay marriage, gun control, liberalization of marijuana laws, and the Affordable Care Act.

Then there’s the matter of escaping Obama’s shadow. Gardner got new ­ammunition on Oct. 2, when the president gave a speech at Northwestern University defending his policies. “I am not on the ballot this fall,” Obama said. “But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one.” Udall must’ve wanted to climb to the top of a mountain and scream.

He can still eke out a victory. Colorado  Democrats were among the first to build a sophisticated turnout operation (it’s credited with ­securing Senator Bennet’s win in 2010). A recent New York Times study found the state’s Democrats outspending Republicans in voter turnout by 8 to 1. An operative ­involved in the effort says Democrats will spend $15 million getting out votes for Udall, along with $25 million more over the airwaves. Udall insists he’ll prevail: “The contrast between working together, moving the state forward, and voting for ideological reasons to shut down the government is the clearest one in the country, in any of these races.”

Even if Gardner wins, his example should be sobering for conservative Republicans. Only by breaking with the right on key issues and aggressively moderating his image has he been able to broaden his appeal. Priebus, the GOP chairman, has been pushing his party to modernize, and at each stop in Colorado, he gently echoed this message. “Republicans can’t just show up five months before an election,” he told supporters at party headquarters in Denver. “We’ve become a U-Haul trailer of cash for a presidential nominee, and it’s a losing strategy. We have to be a ­national party that’s everywhere, all the time, in every community around the country.” Gardner is better equipped than most candidates to carry this out, and he’s obviously getting some traction. If Udall can’t stop him, the most interesting thing to watch will be whether ­Republicans heed his lesson.