For months, Senate candidate Cory Gardner has been attacked as an extremist on the issues of abortion and Obamacare's contraception mandate. His response has been to disavow his support for a 2010 personhood amendment in Colorado and to support over-the-counter access to birth control. But a few Colorado social conservatives believe that the Republican congressman is missing an opportunity to push back against the real extremism of his Democratic opponent, incumbent senator Mark Udall.
“I live in Colorado. If you see (Udall’s) ads, you would think he’s a moderate,” former Colorado Marilyn Musgrave, now a vice president of government affairs at the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said in an interview. “He needs to be exposed for how his extreme he is.”
While Gardner's response to the attacks has been defensive, outsiders are now trying to take the fight to Udall. The group Colorado Women Speak Out recently released two 60-second ads (here and here) that hammer the Colorado Democrat for his opposition to any legal protections for the unborn. “Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, most Coloradans believe there should be some limits on abortion. Not Mark Udall. Udall believes there should be no limits, not even for painful, later-term abortions,” a female narrator says plainly in one commercial.
The ads are the work of Women Speak Out, a super PAC affiliated with the Susan B. Anthony List. Its leaders now hope to reach a wider audience with its message about Udall. Last week, the organization held a rally on the western steps of the state capitol in Denver to highlight Udall’s position on the Pain Capable Unborn Child-Protection Act, which would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks except in cases of rape, incest, and threats to maternal life and health.
Polls consistently show that voters overwhelmingly support the legislation: A Washington Post/ABC survey found that Americans support the measure by 36-point margin (64 percent to 28 percent). Udall has not tipped his hand about the legislation, but he opposed a similar bill in December 2006 and voted against the federal partial-birth abortion ban.
Like his father, the late Representative “Mo” Udall of Arizona who ran for president in 1976, Mark Udall has made a political career out of balancing the interests of liberals and moderates in his party. But Udall’s re-election campaign has given no quarter to moderates on cultural issues. With data from pollster Celinda Lake and the Voter Participation Center showing he needs to motivate single-female voters to turn out, Udall has made his support for abortion rights and taxpayer-financed coverage of birth control front and center.
Udall’s first ad in the campaign, which aired ten days after Gardner won the party’s nomination for the Senate, depicted Gardner as indifferent if not hostile to women’s interests. “It comes down to respect for women and our lives, so Congressman Gardner’s support for harsh anti-abortion laws is disturbing,” a female narrator says icily. In August, Udall’s campaign released a 30-second ad that accused Gardner of sponsoring legislation that would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest. “Gardner is sponsoring a bill that would ban all abortions right now,” a male narrator says in a tone of incredulity.
The charge is demagogic. In fact, the bill that Gardner supported, the Life at Conception Act by Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio, is purely nominative; it would define the unborn as persons under the 14th Amendment but give Congress the authority to enforce laws protecting them.
But the truth has not won out. Colorado media outlets, especially The Denver Post, which has not exactly played the role of an attack dog of the state’s senior senator, have not parsed the niceties of Jordan’s bill. With the demise of the Rocky Mountain News in 2009 and The Colorado Observer in July, conservatives have few outlets in the state to push back against Udall’s attacks. And Gardner himself has yet to recalibrate his position on Jordan’s legislation. When asked about Udall’s charge that he is out of the mainstream on abortion, Gardner deflected it. “There’s an old saying in politics: You never run the same race twice. Democrats are running the same race three, four, five times. It’s an old ploy, and Coloradans see through it,” Gardner said in an interview outside the House floor on August 1.
And yet Gardner is arguably copying the same playbook of another failed Republican candidate: Mitt Romney. In 2012, the Obama campaign ran 10 percent of its ads casting Romney as an extremist on the issue of abortion. The Romney campaign had just one ad that defensively addressed the issue: It pointed out that the Republican supported exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother but never attacked Obama for his hugely unpopular positions on late-term and tax-payer funded abortion.
Udall's record as both a member of the House (1999-2009) and Senate (2009 to present) is vulnerable to a counterattack. He has received 100-percent ratings from the group formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League; it is also true in June Udall received a $1,200 donation from Dr. Warren M. Hern of Boulder, a rare physician who is open about performing abortions in the second- and third trimester of pregnancy.
In 2000, Udall voted for legislation that would have overturned the prohibition on funding for abortion coverage in federal-employee health plans. In 1984, Colorado voters approved a ban on taxpayer funding of abortion and in 1986 defeated an attempt to rescind the law. Udall’s position on parental-notification law is another example in which Udall’s vote may have differed from the state’s voters. In 2006, Udall voted against legislation that would have prohibited minors from crossing state lines with the intent of evading their state’s parental-consent laws. In 2003, the state legislature enacted a parental-notification law.
Some national Republicans fear to tread on cultural issues in a purple state such as Colorado, which was the first state to loosen restrictions on the procedure in April 1967. A Senate Republican leadership aide pointed to a July story in the Wall Street Journal which noted that although red-state Democratic Senate candidates were not raising cultural issues to attack their opponents, purple-state Democratic candidates like Udall are. This aide as well as a red-state Republican Senate candidate gave a pass to Gardner for not attacking Udall’s record. But some Republican lawmakers say the party should criticize rather than ignore the pro-choice absolutism of purple-state Democrats. They point to the results a pollster in the race to replace the late Representative C.W. Bill Young of Florida found in which Republican David Jolly pulled ahead of Democrat Alex Sink after he criticized her for her pro-choice absolutism.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the sponsor of the abortion ban after 20 weeks, is a believer. In an interview at the Capitol on July 30, Graham warned that if statewide Republican candidates in competitive states fail to answer Democratic attacks, they will end up like the defeated Republican candidate for governor of Virginia last year. “This guy, (Ken) Cuccinelli, made a huge mistake when Terry McAuliffe attacked him on birth control and abortion. McAuliffe is way to the left on those issues … Americans are divided about early abortions, but they’re united about later-term abortions,” Graham said.
Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster based in Denver, too, endorsed the idea that hitting back on Udall’s abortion record could blunt the Democrat’s advantage with female voters. “That definitely helps. Number one, it appeals to suburban women who support abortion rights but are uncomfortable with some aspects of the right. And it appeals to fiscal conservative who don’t want to pay for abortions. So absolutely I think Udall could be hurt if this is done right,” Ciruli said in an interview August 22.
Gardner trails Udall by 1 percentage point, according to the RealClearPolitics of poll averages. Ciruli thinks that if the election were held today, Udall would win. But he suggested that if Udall won, the reason would not be Gardner’s stand on cultural issues but an uptick in support for President Obama, whose approval ratingshave dropped to less than 40 percent in some polls. And if Gardner prevailed, those who encouraged the Republican to fight back would deserve some of the credit.
Mark Stricherz, the former Washington bureau chief of The Colorado Observer and author of Why the Democrats are Blue, is the Washington correspondent for Aleteia.org.