A GOP Star Rises in Colorado, Beats Udall

Likeable Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner eked out a major win Tuesday night.

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A state that President Obama carried twice is no longer reliably blue.

Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner handily defeated incumbent Democrat Mark Udall in a race where the formula that worked for Democrats in three consecutive elections since 2008 failed to deliver the votes of women and Hispanics in the numbers Udall needed.

First elected to Congress in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave, Gardner muted his most conservative credentials, successfully countering the Democratic playbook that relied on portraying him as too much of an extremist on social issues to be elected in Colorado. Gardner went on the offensive, saying he would vote against the personhood amendment on the Colorado ballot, a measure he had twice supported in previous elections.

He also became an advocate for over-the-counter sale of birth control, countering Udall’s claim that Gardner’s support of a personhood amendment means he would ban some forms of contraception. Udall’s narrowly cast campaign cost him the endorsement of the Denver Post and, according to Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, created a backlash among women who thought the race should also be about other concerns like the economy and college affordability.

Udall shifted his emphasis to the economy in the last weeks of the campaign, but it was too late. Gardner’s winning personality had made an impact not only in the state but also among the national pundit class. Conservative columnist George Will called him a “cherubic 40-year-old….a human beam of sunshine.”

Republicans and Democrats too began citing Gardner as the model for Republicans in the Obama era, when the “rising American electorate” of single women, young people and African-Americans is beginning to fray at the six-year marker for the president. Obama’s low poll ratings acted as an anchor on Udall, who won on the Obama wave in 2008 and was counting on similar enthusiasm from the Obama coalition.

Gardner didn’t say or do anything to inflame these voters that would motivate them to come out and vote against him, and to support Udall. A flood of negative ads on both sides damaged both men, but hurt Udall more, simply because he was the incumbent. Gardner was the fresh face -- nothing not to like -- and from the perspective of an electorate soured by world events and losing faith in elected officials, trying somebody new is appealing.

Udall didn’t win enough women to make up for the men that typically vote Republican, and who supported Gardner in big numbers. The growing Hispanic vote in Colorado that helped elect Michael Bennet in 2010, one of the few Democrats to weather the GOP tidal wave that year, didn’t show up the way the Udall forces had hoped. They didn’t support Gardner either; they simply stayed home, casualties of the Washington infighting that has left immigration reform in tatters.

When Gardner goes to Washington, will he reclaim his Tea Party roots and join hands with Texas Senator Ted Cruz? Or will he turn out to be the moderate he claimed to be on the campaign trail, somebody who will use that sunny personality to work across the aisle to pass legislation, not to just smile and say no.