In a purple state that’s trending blue, Republicans understand they have little room for error. Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO), once dubbed the “GOP Idea Man” by the Denver Post, was indubitably the candidate best suited to take on Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) this November, and his candidacy has unified a fractured conservative base in Colorado.
Gardner, who currently represents the East Plains region of Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives, is sufficiently conservative, affable, and disciplined. His campaign is widely regarded in Republican circles as one of the best in the country. With fewer than 30 days remaining in this race, Gardner has generated no scandals, no major gaffes, and no unforced errors.
Without substantive criticisms of his Republican opponent, the Udall campaign has, thanks to the unsubtle assistance of an agenda-setting media, shifted the conversation from real, vote-moving issues to Gardner’s relatively mainstream views on matters like abortion and birth control. In advertisements (curiously, even those supposedly about climate change), on the stump, and in debates, Udall and his allies have attempted to move poll numbers strictly by appealing to women’s wombs.
Campaign Features Contraception Fear-Mongering
Team Udall has focused largely on Gardner’s support (which he later withdrew) of a controversial “personhood amendment” in Colorado that some say would make many forms of birth control inaccessible. They have also dwelled on Gardner’s pro-life views, perhaps best demonstrated in his co-sponsorship of the “Life at Conception Act” (H.R. 1091), along with 131 other Members of Congress.
If Udall and Co. had their way, Colorado women would worry that Gardner is going to slink his hand into each of their purses and yank the Yaz right out of them. They so desperately want voters to fear Gardner that they have utterly fabricated his platform on this tertiary issue, hoping to paint the Republican candidate as some misogynistic troglodyte. Never mind that Gardner and his wife have been candid about their own use of contraceptives. Never mind, too, that Udall’s own positions on life issues are far outside the American mainstream (he won’t rule out partial birth and late-term abortions, and he sees no reason to prohibit sex-selective abortions).
Instead of responding to Udall’s incessant fear-mongering by twisting himself into a rhetorical pretzel, Gardner simply dismisses this ludicrous mischaracterization, shrugging off these accusations for the wild blather they are. He then reinforces a reform he, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, champions: permitting the sale of contraception over the counter without a prescription. Udall, Colorado’s heralded Rosie Riveter, mysteriously opposes this proposal.
Women Not Enamored of Pandering
Still, the Udall gynecological obsession, inevitably buoyed by liberals’ previous political success with this topic, rages on. Even after serving Coloradans on Capitol Hill for 16 years, Udall seems to speak of virtually nothing else. This bizarre political tunnel vision has drawn mockery from the press, who nicknamed the two-term senator “Mark Uterus” and have openly ridiculed his apparent policy dearth.
In its endorsement of Gardner, the Denver Post explains, “Rather than run on his record, Udall’s campaign has devoted a shocking amount of energy and money trying to convince voters that Gardner seeks to outlaw birth control despite the congressman’s call for over-the-counter sales of contraceptives. Udall is trying to frighten voters rather than inspire them with a hopeful vision. His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince.”
Despite the liberal histrionics, their misdirection hasn’t worked. In a bipartisan survey conducted during and after this week’s debates, Gardner’s lead over the Democrat incumbent has expanded to six points, at 43 percent to 37 percent. The Republican is peaking at just the right time, as ballots are mailed to voters across Colorado (which conducts elections by mail).
A dive into the polling data tells us more than who is likely to win on Election Day. After months of mudslinging and millions in negative campaign advertisements, Udall’s efforts to portray Gardner as “anti-woman” have fallen flat. The senior senator leads the Republican congressman by a mere five points among women, 42 percent to 37 percent, which is a pretty lousy return on investment. It also does little to neutralize Gardner’s 13-point lead among male voters.
Close Ties to President Obama Another Sticking Point
While Udall foams at the mouth over fantastical views he’s falsely attributed to Gardner, he leaves himself vulnerable on contentious matters Coloradans actually care about: Obamacare (which has been especially disastrous in the Centennial State), jobs, domestic energy production, and national security. On each of these, it is unclear if Udall has ever experienced the sensation of an independent thought.
As with nearly all Democrat incumbents facing tough re-election bids, Udall’s lockstep allegiance to the White House’s agenda—the senior senator has voted with President Obama 99 percent of the time—is undeniably problematic. A recent survey conducted by the liberal Public Policy Polling revealed that only 35 percent of Coloradans approve of President Obama’s job performance, compared to 58 percent of voters who disapprove. That’s a staggering 23-point deficit for the president, who just days ago made life only more difficult for embattled incumbents by proudly declaring that his policies will be “on the ballot” in November.
In a futile effort to distance himself from President Obama during a recent debate, Udall preposterously proclaimed, “I am the senator that the White House fears most when they see me marching across the White House lawn.” His statement drew further mockery from both Colorado and national press, including an entire CNN panel that enjoyed a good laugh at his expense. Even since that disastrous debate performance, Udall has been unable to point to a single significant deviation from the White House’s political platform (Udall claims he differs from President Obama on the National Security Agency, but he also issued a statement applauding the administration on its reforms to the organization).
As Udall and his allies hammer Gardner for views he doesn’t actually hold, the Republican congressman ties the liberal senator to a flailing president and his unpopular policies. While Udall carries on about fallopian tubes, Gardner champions fracking. While Udall drags on about abortion, Gardner dismantles Obamacare. While Udall breathlessly advocates for intrauterine devices as though he, himself, is implanted with one, Gardner talks about defeating ISIS.
Lessons for Republicans from Cory Gardner
What can Cory Gardner teach Republicans about responding to the “war on women?”
First, your principal message must prevail. The Republican Party should not chase every birth control rabbit Democrats release. We know they’ll do it, so we should be prepared to respond. Gardner clearly anticipated that Udall would make “reproductive rights” his clarion call, and the Republican congressman wasn’t going to panic over it. Instead, Gardner glides from one attack on Udall’s record to the next, never ceasing to pair the Democrat incumbent with President Obama. Udall’s fallacious accusations, misrepresentation of his record, or mischaracterization of his beliefs don’t shake Gardner. Instead, he redirects the debate to meatier issues, such as the economy and health care, without getting “in the weeds” on less pressing matters, like whether Julia’s birth-control pills should fall from the sky like Skittles.
Second, no matter your policy solution for dealing with controversial issues such as these, it’s important to have one. Gardner does not have to explain away his pro-life principles at every turn because he has something else he’s for—something that is tremendously popular and that his opponent inexplicably opposes. During the time he would otherwise be forced to fill with defending his conservative values, Gardner can instead talk on his own terms. And that’s always a good thing.
Next, message discipline matters. Gardner’s consistency and restraint give Udall few openings for attack. When asked about his positions on birth control and abortion, Gardner responds clearly, calmly and with conviction. It’s obvious that he means what he says: one can support expanded access to contraception without forcing taxpayers to pay for it and without supporting abortion. We also know there’s no better way to frustrate a bully than to refuse to be bothered by him. Gardner’s disinterest in even entertaining Udall’s wild accusations demonstrate a political maturity. He knows he doesn’t have to fight every battle or feed a troll—even if that troll is a sitting U.S. senator.
Finally, we are learning there’s an expiration date on the “war on women.” Democrats are in real danger of overplaying this hand, and if the left-of-center Colorado press is berating Udall for his birth-control mania, imagine how the voters must see him. That doesn’t mean conservatives shouldn’t remain on guard, but they can take heart that perhaps the country has been all Lena Dunham’ed out and wants to talk about bigger issues. You know, like our $17 trillion national debt.