Why is Udall Running Away from his Record?

 /  Nov. 1, 2014, 3:11 p.m.

Official Portrait

Ask the Colorado voter: "What are Mark Udall's biggest accomplishments as a senator?" and they may well be at a loss. Udall, like most Senate Democrats in close races, is running away from his party and trying to make the election about a down-to-earth western public servant, not an embattled president or divisive legislation like the Affordable Care Act or the last six budgets (which Udall supported). Ask in Washington, and people will immediately know that Udall, even in his freshman term, has made waves as a leader of the effort to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and has been one of the most consistent voices on the Senate Intelligence Committee opposing NSA data collection programs. By many accounts, and according to an assortment of polls, Coloradans should herald these efforts as victories, and as evidence that their senator is doing what they themselves would do. Casual observers of the 2014 election have barely heard about Udall's accomplishments, because he is running away from the strongest part of his record. 

Udall's national security record, especially his efforts to curtail NSA surveillance, has not only been his area of greatest impact as a senator, it has also been thoroughly bipartisan. Udall is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal—National Journal ranks him as the thirty-third most liberal senator right behind Elizabeth Warren, and Govtrack indicates that most of his votes fall within the Democratic Party line—but his work on government surveillance in particular shows that he is not dogmatic. Udall and Ron Wyden (D-OR), the strongest anti-surveillance voices on the Intelligence Committee, reached not just across the aisle, but all the way across the chamber to co-author an Op-Ed with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) criticizing the lack of legal accountability for the NSA. 

Even Udall’s opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, cannot disagree with Udall’s stance on civil liberties. Udall has proven through action, not just promises, that he has the backbone and moral compass necessary to step out of the party line and work to hold a Democratic president accountable on civil liberties. And, though the Denver Post criticized Udall for 'not being perceived as a leader' in their surprise endorsement of Cory Gardner, Washington publications like The Hill and Roll Call, as well as national news outlets including the New York Times have recognized Udall as an important legislator, with some calling him the Senate’s vanguard on combatting overreach by the Intelligence Community.

So why hasn’t Udall run on his record: the Senate’s leading intelligence watchdog, a true liberal who can work with libertarians. Udall is likely worried that there is not much room for a statesman in state politics. Colorado’s political scene defies the gradual urbanization and liberalization of the population that has taken place over the past 20 years. Udall, educated at Williams College, was former director of Outward Bound. Though never a rancher in his life, he follows the Colorado political dress code and wears his cowboy boots to campaign events. In Colorado, a state with a  growing high-tech industry, large immigrant population, and socially liberalizing electorate, campaigns are something of a throwback, a contest of who can be the most western and down to earth. Politicians still think that Colorado wants a good ‘ol boy more than it wants a modern legislator.

Instead of campaigning on his fitness to legislate, Udall has spent most of the campaign hammering Gardner for a retrograde stance on social issues and an environmental record unbecoming of colorful Colorado. A campaign ad called out Gardner on his birth control record, with Udall saying “it’s 2014, how is it we’re still debating a woman’s access to abortion or birth control?” Gardner has savvily reversed course and cut far left, saying that he believes birth control should be available without a prescription. Udall’s relentless focus on social issues has become a joke, and Gardner has emerged the hero for ‘catching up’ with public opinion.

 Udall has recently focused on NSA reform as a last-ditch effort to revive his campaign, but the weekend before the election is probably too late to make a large difference, especially in a state where all voters receive mail-in ballots. Udall may have foregone the best argument in his favor, and the growing possibility of his defeat is generating concern among both Democrats and, surprisingly, libertarians outside of Colorado. Civil liberties voters and libertarians  are sounding the alarm that the Senate may be about to lose its government transparency champion.

 In a midterm climate so hostile to democrats and supporters of the president, Udall could have proved his bona fides as an independent mind and a legislator with ideological commitment but without partisan animosity. Udall’s 2014 campaign has not represented the kind of senator that he has been and could continue to be. The choice that Coloradans will make next week is poorly informed as a result.

Aidan Milliff