Fresh off losing a Senate race in which their candidate was laser-focused on reproductive rights, Colorado Democrats are demonstrating a willingness to use the strategy all over again.
Republican State Sen. Ellen Roberts last week said she's "exploring" a run to unseat Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. She would appear to be a poor pick for the "war on women" campaign, Democrats' oft-used tactic of citing a Republican candidate's record on abortion, contraception, and other social issues to appeal to women voters.
Unlike most Republicans, Roberts largely supports abortion rights. In 2014, she was named the "most pro-abortion Republican in the legislature" by Colorado Right to Life, and she says the position has twice caused her primary challenges from the right in her state Senate races. In fact, she's so far left on social issues that it would likely doom any bid to win the GOP's nomination.
But when Roberts announced her interest in the race last week, Democrats immediately painted her as a foot soldier in the "war on women," with the state Democratic Party and its political allies immediately labeling her as a social extremist. Cathy Alderman, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, called Roberts an integral part of the Republican-led legislature's "race to the bottom on women's health."
The focus on social issues is an early indication that—despite then-Sen. Mark Udall using the strategy unsuccessfully in 2014—Democrats still believe in that line of attack, and they're likely to deploy it again against whoever Republicans pick to run against Bennet in 2016.
"In terms of the general election, women's health is always present as an issue, especially if Republicans are attacking it and trying to take away choice," said Colorado Democratic strategist and Bennet campaign consultant Craig Hughes. Hughes managed Bennet's 2010 campaign against Ken Buck, which also focused heavily on reproductive issues and was credited as one of the country's most successful campaigns that cycle.
"Choice has long been an important issue here in Colorado," said Hughes. "As much as some Republicans want to say otherwise, it is a reality here that a woman's ability to make her own choice is under attack, and personhood measures that get run on the ballot over and over again are one example."
And Democrats say Roberts's record on social issues has taken a conservative turn. Roberts this past legislative session backed a bill allowing murder charges for the death of unborn children. The legislation stemmed from an unusual and brutal Colorado case in which an attacker cut a pregnant woman's baby out of her stomach, killing it but not the mother.
Though the bill specifically exempted women seeking abortions and abortion providers, Democrats and women's health advocates said it would effectively give human rights to unborn fetuses.
State Democratic Party spokesman Andrew Zucker responded to Roberts's interest in the race by pointing to her support for the bill, which he said gave her "a record that's out of touch with Colorado, no matter how much favor it may gain her with GOP political insiders."
"We no longer believe her to be moderate, and we no longer consider her an ally on women's health issues," Planned Parenthood's Alderman told The Durango Herald in response to inquiries about Roberts's candidacy last week. "Frankly, we are disappointed by [her support of the bill], but she may feel that is what she needs to do if she is going to go for a statewide race."
Roberts, for her part, defended the bill this week in an op-ed for The Denver Post, saying she's always supported abortion being legal, and that she was confident the legislation would not interfere with a woman's right to choose. In an interview with National Journal this week, Roberts said Democrats were just playing politics with the issue out of fear, and to meddle in a potential primary.
"I'm not your average Republican, and I think that [Democrats] see that both as threatening to them, but also as a potential wedge for me if I did get in the race," Roberts said.
Given the outcome of last year's battleground Senate race in Colorado, Democrats' decision to choose women's health issues as their first line of attack is a bit surprising.
Udall's unsuccessful reelection bid has been widely criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for focusing too much on reproductive health and ignoring other pressing issues. The deluge of ads run by Udall's campaign and Democratic outside groups focused almost entirely on his opponent Cory Gardner's prior support for personhood legislation, and earned him the moniker "Mark Uterus." Local press called Udall's singular focus on reproductive rights "obnoxious," and an "insult" to voters.
But national and Colorado-based Democratic strategists remain confident that reproductive health is still one of the most salient issues for their party, and it's one that they have no plans to abandon next cycle.
Leaders of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told National Journal this past spring that they believed Udall's 2014 strategy, though perhaps flawed in its execution, was not wrong in its message.
"[W]hen you have a party who aggressively legislates against economic and health interests of women, those issues are fair game to discuss with voters," said DSCC Executive Director Tom Lopach. "I don't think people should be surprised if 2016 campaigns talk about women's issues."
Matt Canter, a deputy executive director at the DSCC in 2014, said the issues were "salient for voters and hurt Gardner, but they weren't enough to remake a historically difficult electoral atmosphere."
Asked whether that strategy would be more difficult against a candidate like Roberts, DSCC spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said: "Your record is your record no matter what gender you are. Our candidates will be touting their records to protect women's health, and where there is a difference, talking about how it's different from their opponent."
Republicans, meanwhile, say they're eager to take on this battle again.
"Sen. Bennet's obnoxious War on Women was soundly rejected by Colorado voters in 2014 and cost his friend Mark Udall his job," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Matt Connelly said in a statement. "Democrats lost nine Senate seats and the majority in the United States Senate. Yet, Democrats still haven't learned their lesson."
Hughes said that Democrats this cycle wouldn't make the same mistakes of 2014, focusing instead on women's health as part of a broader argument against GOP policies.
"It's not about stepping back, it's about a broader context," Hughes said. "I think it's fair to say that, with all the independent expenditures and as much spending as there was in Colorado, that it appeared there was too much focus on choice. You can't downplay the importance of the issue because it's a critical issue for Colorado voters, but at the same time, there has to be more context."
Roberts said that while she didn't believe women's health should be the primary focus of the campaign, Gardner's success was proof that offering "a different kind of candidate" was a winning strategy for Republicans in Colorado.
If Roberts decides to run, she would likely be to the left of the GOP field, in a state where the last competitive Republican Senate primary produced the far-right Buck as its nominee.
National Republicans are looking to Rep. Mike Coffman, who has won difficult reelection bids in his swing House district, as their top choice for the race. Coffman has said he's considering the race, and Roberts said his decision would be a factor in whether she runs.
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