16 Questions: The Colorado Senate Race

In the second installment of The Atlantic's Midterm Cheat Sheet, Colorado political reporter Eli Stokols discusses the contest between Mark Udall and Cory Gardner.

Cory Gardner, left, and Mark Udall (Brennan Linsley/AP)

It’s no secret that Americans are turned off politics and disgusted with Congress. Pundit after pundit has stepped forward to declare the 2014 midterms “an election about nothing.” There are surely good reasons to be pessimistic, but for voters in states with crucial races, the election really is about something—local jobs, God-given freedoms, the right to control one’s body, or how people in the state feel about President Obama. And the stakes are real: Control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

To understand what’s going on in some of the hottest Senate races, The Atlantic has put together its own version of the Proust Questionnaire, focusing on the midterms. And we’ve asked top political reporters and columnists from those states to help understand what’s going on and how it will affect the country.

The Colorado edition features Eli Stokols, a political reporter and anchor at Denver's KDVR and KWGN and a frequent contributor to Politico Magazine and 5280 magazine. Stokols analyzes the battle between incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall and Republican Representative Cory Gardner.

What’s the biggest issue in this race?

President Obama isn't an issue per se but this race is all about him—he's all Cory Gardner talks about, and he's someone Senator Udall has tried to avoid talking about as much as possible. Polls, which show how unpopular the president has become in a state where he was first nominated and twice won, seem to show why. Gardner's broken record attack line, that Udall has "voted with Obama 99 percent of the time," may well carry the day.

Policy-wise, women's health issues have dominated, thanks to Udall's almost total focus on Gardner's pro-life stance, his past support for abortion bans and a statewide personhood measure, which he disavowed in March, and his seemingly incongruous ongoing support for a federal personhood bill. It's a fair attack, but a familiar one to voters here; and Udall has undercut its effectiveness by focusing on it so obsessively and failing to make a separate case for himself based on his own record (see: the new @MarkUterus parody Twitter account).

Describe Udall's campaign operation:

Udall's campaign is being run by a number of Democratic operatives who have been around a long time and engineered other statewide wins in the past several cycles. He's raised more than $17 million for the cycle. The campaign's strength is expected to be the investment in a field team, touted by Udall as the largest in Colorado history. Republicans hint that they've learned their lessons and won't get beaten again at the end of the campaign, but the Democratic ground game here has always helped Ds (like Senator Michael Bennet in 2010) out-perform their poll numbers by a couple points. [Ed. note: Bennet is the brother of The Atlantic’s editor in chief and co-president James Bennet.]

Describe Gardner's campaign operation:

Gardner's campaign is a tight-knit, cohesive unit led by Chris Hansen, who ran the congressman's 2010 race and served as his chief of staff for a few years. The campaign has been smart, strategic and nimble; and it has seemingly worked well with the state GOP and other folks on the hard and soft money side—that's something you haven't been able to say about Republican campaigns here for a few cycles that have been marked by dysfunction and in-fighting. Gardner's entry in late February really seemed to excite and unite Colorado Republicans in a way we haven't seen for some time. This is a campaign that believes in and trusts its candidate.

What you’ll remember in 10 years:

That's hard to say at this point. One of the things I'll remember is how uninspired both campaigns have been, how little they've engaged beyond the daily back and forth on Twitter and, increasingly, over the airwaves. It's really been the Seinfeld election, seemingly about nothing. You have two partisans, which is simply reflective of a Congress with so little bipartisan comity, fighting to convince centrist voters in a purplish state that they're moderates, despite ample evidence in both cases to the contrary. It's been a hard sell for both of them. The resulting strategy: Trash the other guy. It's been a campaign of platitudes, not ideas, perhaps more so than any other I've covered. And that's saying something.

Best/worst ad:

One of the best ads features a small-town mayor getting choked up talking about her town getting obliterated by last year's floods and how Udall was there for her community. Gardner's ads generally have done a good job humanizing him as a small-town, family-oriented guy, but none have stood out on their own. One featuring Gardner saying, "What's a Republican like me doing at a wind farm?" was great at first glance—until fact-checkers noted that law Gardner was touting in the spot for "creating Colorado's wind industry" was repealed a few years later for doing nothing.

There are so many bad ads, but maybe the worst one was from Crossroads GPS, which featured a woman in her kitchen saying that Obamacare forced her to go back to work. After noting on her LinkedIn profile that she'd apparently been working continuously since well before Obamacare was implemented, I called her up and found out that she simply decided to go back to work after having children because her family need a second income. "It wasn't the Affordable Care Act," she told me, contradicting the entire ad.

Biggest surprise: The Denver Post endorsement of Gardner last week. No one expected that, given that the board, based on editorials over the past few years, aligns almost completely with Udall on issues (save the Keystone XL pipeline); and no one expected the scathing indictment of Udall's campaign focus on women's-health issues, which is almost a carbon copy of the campaign that Bennet, who the Post now held up as a model lawmaker, ran in 2010 (when he received the Post's endorsement, albeit a pretty mild one).

How nasty has this race been, on a scale of one to 10?

Seven (but it's not over yet)

Biggest gaffe: When Udall said in the first debate that he's the last person the White House wants to see walking through the gate, there were audible laughs in the room. A week later, CNN's Peter Hamby and other national pundits were laughing at the line. That was a pretty damning indictment of a politician's pathetic attempt to put a bipartisan gloss on a partisan record. Gardner's inability to explain his support for the Life at Conception Act might be a gaffe of equal or even greater impact; but it's not so much a gaffe made in the moment as it was an early miscalculation in deciding to only recalibrate his stance on personhood halfway.

How his party sees Udall: Democrats see Udall as a genuine person who's in public office for the right reasons. They may not look at him nationally as a mover and shaker on a track toward party leadership, but they respect him and know that his outspokenness on civil liberties and the environment come from a place of conviction.

How his party sees Gardner: Republicans see Gardner as his campaign has sought to portray him, as part of a "next generation" of leaders in a party that desperately needs them. He is a gifted debater and was increasingly a go-to person within the House GOP when it needed new faces to represent the caucus on television; should he win, I expect he'll be given a fairly prominent, visible place within the Senate caucus. Additionally, he has been fairly adroit in navigating the fractious Republican caucus without alienating leadership or too many of his more strident Tea Party colleagues.

Which group of voters will decide the race?

Moderate and Republican women—the ones Udall and Gardner have both been talking to when they talk about abortion and birth control. If Gardner keeps the gender gap under 10 points, it may not matter how many college students and Hispanic voters cast ballots.

How the man on the street sees Udall, in 10 words or less:

Personifies Colorado, Boulder, outdoorsy, respectable, genuine, Democratic politician

How the man on the street sees Gardner, in 10 words or less:

Somewhat unknown, young, charismatic, likable, conservative, up and comer

Favorite Coloradan food:

I'll get killed for saying this, but "Colorado" food is sort of non-existent (green chile, after all, is from New Mexico). And I'm not into Rocky Mountain Oysters. I guess I'll go with a good ribeye steak.

Favorite ever Colorado politician:

Barney Ford, who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad and struck it rich during Colorado's gold rush, was an early and courageous advocate for civil rights and voting rights in Denver around the time Colorado was granted statehood. He was never elected to public office, but is immortalized in a stained glass window inside the Colorado statehouse and remains an inspiration to lawmakers today.

Favorite Coloradan, period:

Molly Ball, one of the funniest and sharpest people writing about politics in America