Colorado’s Republican senatorial candidate Cory Gardner recently ran a campaign spot highlighting his working class roots as a son of a tractor salesman. In the ad, Gardner contrasts his upbringing with that of his opponent Mark Udall, who is, evidently, a “real nice guy” but whose father ran for president and whose two cousins are also senators. Udall, says Gardner, “is Washington.”
This is very upsetting. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee immediately revved up the indignation, calling the innocuous ad (which you can see below) “a disgusting attack” on Udall’s family. Udall himself believes that pointing out that his dad was a lifelong politician was “personal and negative.” The reaction, no doubt, meant to create the perception that Gardner is engaging in disreputable politicking. But let’s take the all at face value for a moment.
To begin with, an unadorned fact is only “negative” if you’re embarrassed by it.
It’s not as if Gardner called Udall’s dad a raving liberal and failed presidential candidate. It’s not as if Gardner said, “His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son.” It’s not as if he pointed out that Mark’s cousin is a leading crusader to overturn the First Amendment. And it isn’t as if he mentioned any of the other Udalls who have lived off the taxpayers over the past century (including Mark’s uncle Stewart, who was both a congressman and Secretary of the Interior). Nor did Gardner bring up Mark Udall’s wife, who is not only a behind-the-scenes political operative but a hardcore environmental activist who’s worked with Al Gore and others to pass things like carbon taxes.
“This race should be about who can better represent the great state of Colorado, not personal attacks on our families,” Udall said, who continues to avoid any televised debates. His dad, says the Colorado senator, “was as Western and bipartisan and commonsense as a man could get.”
And Cory Gardner never said otherwise. He could have pointed out that in 1976, Mo Udall ran for the Democratic nomination as the liberal alternative to Jimmy Carter, and he was supported by the left-wing of the party, including Ted Kennedy. He did not. And history says nothing about Mark Udall’s record in the Senate, his abilities or his ideology – and any voter who makes their decisions based the populist belief that growing a certain way makes you a more moral or competent person is doing themselves a disservice. But Gardner’s ad does tell us that Udall’s family is deeply entrenched in Washington politics and nepotism is almost certainly one of the reasons Mark is a senator. This kind of “attack” is surely within the boundaries of acceptable political behavior. A candidate’s upbringing – as we saw in the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney contest – has always been fair game. Most candidates can’t stop talking about it, actually. I’ve also argued in the past that your religious beliefs shouldn’t be off limits, either. Nor should any debauchery of your personal life. If it were, Obama might not have ever been a Senator.
But what’s most astonishing about these outbursts of annoyance from people like Mark Udall is that they’re running for positions which afford them power to coerce fellow citizens. They have a say in how millions of families live their lives. Yet, they demand immunity when it comes to theirs. Though politicians tend to avoid attacks on family because of blowback from voters, all of the people Gardner mentions (and those I mention above) have chosen a life in politics – and in Udalls’ case, they don’t choose much else — opening themselves up for scrutiny. If inquiry bothers them, maybe they shouldn’t pick another vocation. No one cares what your father did when you’re a tractor salesman.