GOP challengers for Sen. Mark Udall’s seat are gamely facing a daunting task
The Denver Post
GRANBY — When U.S. Rep. Mark Udall won his U.S. Senate race, Republicans groused that the “Boulder liberal” survived only because 2008 was such a banner year for Democrats nationally.
Fast-forward to Udall’s re-election bid in 2014, a year many pundits believe will favor the GOP.
Yet, so far, the race has failed to draw any A-team Republicans, and some party members openly guffawed when state Sen. Randy Baumgardner — known for his bushy mustache and slow drawl — announced he planned to challenge Udall.
The Hot Sulphur Springs Republican held his campaign kickoff Friday morning outside a restaurant in Granby, 88 miles from the hustle and bustle — and votes — of Colorado’s populous Front Range.
Afterward, Baumgardner got some friendly advice from former state Rep. Phil Pankey, a Republican who thinks Baumgardner is “gutsy” for his long-shot attempt.
“I told him to stay away from the social issues, focus on jobs and the economy,” the former Littleton lawmaker said.
But Baumgardner, 57, already is known for his anti-immigration bills, which are expected to repel the same Latinos for whom the Republican Party is trying to reserve a seat under its tent.
And other potential Republican challengers face similar issues, even if their profile is higher than Baumgardner’s. Can their positions stand up to Udall, who has managed to cast himself as a moderate strong on personal liberty and who has voted with Republicans on some gun issues?
Baumgardner thinks it’s Udall who has to defend a tough record, noting he voted for the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.”
“Mark Udall is beatable,” he told a small group of Republicans who gathered at his kickoff and bemoaned the hot weather, which briefly hit 80 degrees in the high country.
“It’s time you have somebody representing middle America, rural Colorado and working Colorado,” he said. “I am here for you. I am middle America. I ranch for a living. I’m connected to the land.”
And then Baumgardner hit the campaign trail, heading to Delta for an evening event.
But it’s a long way from now until the next general election, and Colorado politics are notorious for unexpected twists and turns.
Already there is speculation from some observers that the death of Udall’s younger brother during a solo backpacking trip this month might quell the fire in the senator’s belly for another six-year spell. Others believe Udall will want to fight even harder in Washington, especially for the environment, which was the passion of his late brother, Randy.
Political consultant Katy Atkinson, a Denver Republican, pointed out that only a few months ago Gov. John Hickenlooper, who also is up for re-election in 2014, looked invincible. Now Republicans think they have a shot at unseating him.
“Who knows? By this time next year, Hickenlooper might be back on top and Udall will look vulnerable,” Atkinson said. “It’s just way too early.”
Republicans haven’t won a race for governor or U.S. senator since 2002, when Gov. Bill Owens and Sen. Wayne Allard were re-elected in a GOP wave year.
“One thing that happens when you’ve been defeated as many times as Republicans is you don’t have a deep bench,” Atkinson said. “I think that’s what we’re seeing right now with the Senate race. Our Republican members of Congress aren’t interested in running for the Senate, so that A-list is really short.”
On Monday, the day after Baumgardner confirmed he would challenge Udall, fellow state Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, who took office in January, said he, too, was in the race. Even Republicans who are Hill admirers privately think the 31-year-old announced a few years too early.
Other Republicans mentioned as possible Senate challengers include Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, state Rep. Amy Stephens of Monument and former Congressman Bob Beauprez.
Buck lost the 2010 U.S. Senate race to Democrat Michael Bennet by less than 2 percentage points — votes lost among suburban women.
Stephens is expected to have more of an appeal to women, and she understands health care. But opponents have tried to paint her as extreme by pointing to her employment with Focus on the Family more than a decade ago.
Beauprez lost the governor’s race in 2006 in a campaign that even Republicans said was poorly run.
So far, the GOP field has delighted Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party.
“With all of their soul-searching and talk of rebranding the GOP’s image, all that Colorado Republicans could find in their hope to defeat U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in 2014 is more of the same,” Palacio said.
Although Palacio touted Udall’s record on a variety of issues, from the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for gays in the military to support for federal firefighting issues, a Quinnipiac University poll last month showed 45 percent of Coloradans approve of the job the senator is doing while 31 percent disapprove.
“As Sen. Mark Udall prepares for a re-election campaign next year, he cannot be happy with an approval rating short of the magic 50 percent mark,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Maybe, but there are no signs of panic, either.
“It’s still way too early,” Udall spokesman Mike Saccone said when asked about the poll and the election.
Saccone added that Udall has long bemoaned that campaigns seem to be starting earlier and lasting longer, leaving less time for governing.
But Dick Wadhams, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said the poll is telling. And he said Coloradans only have to look as far as their other U.S. senator, Bennet, to see how truly “lackluster” Udall is.
“Look at how Michael Bennet has plunged himself into the great debates that we have been engaged in as a nation, from the budget to immigration,” Wadhams said. “Whether you agree with Bennet or not on the issues — which I don’t — at least Bennet is engaged.”
Udall fans scoff at Wadhams’ assessment and say he isn’t an unbiased observer. In 2008, Wadhams managed the campaign for former Congressman Bob Schaffer of Fort Collins, who lost to Udall by 12 percentage points.
Democratic political consultant Steve Welchert pointed to Udall’s prominence when the spying scandal recently broke.
Udall told The Denver Post he was well aware the federal government was broadly monitoring Americans’ phone and e-mail communications and he did “everything short of leaking classified information” to try to bring attention to the issue.
From his perch on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Udall had written letters to Cabinet members, sponsored bills, threatened to hold up confirmations and even personally engaged President Barack Obama about his increasing sense of alarm that the federal government was trampling Americans’ constitutional rights.
“The Patriot Act, the spying, it’s a ‘get out of bed’ issue for Mark,” Welchert said.
But at Baumgardner’s kickoff in Granby, the locals, including 77-year-old Al Olson with High Country Conservatives, have a much different view of Udall.
“We need to send somebody to Washington who doesn’t get ‘Potomac Fever,’” Olson said.
Lynn Bartels: 303-954-5327, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/lynn_bartels
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