Is Dems' endangered US Senate seat in Colorado safer now?

Top Democrats in Colorado this week managed to keep two antifracking measures off the ballot – initiatives that could have caused Sen. Mark Udall (D) all sorts of difficulty in his tight reelection bid.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 31, 2013.

In the end, top Colorado Democrats decided that retaining Democratic control of the US Senate trumps planting a stake in the ground against fracking, a controversial oil- and gas-drilling method that had threatened to divide Democratic voters in the state and hurt Sen. Mark Udall's chances for reelection.

A compromise unveiled Monday will keep two antifracking initiatives off the ballot, instead establishing a panel to assess the drilling technique – and kicking the issue down the road past the 2014 midterm election. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado announced the deal alongside Rep. Jared Polis (D) of Boulder, who helped bankroll the ballot measures. The governor and Senator Udall had opposed them. Previous efforts to strike a deal had stalled in mid-July.

State Democrats worried the split over fracking could divide and weaken the Democratic base in November. Control of the US Senate may come down to a few competitive elections, and Udall’s tight race with US Rep. Cory Gardner (R) could turn out to be one of them.

The ballot measures’ potential impact on Udall’s race was “clearly a significant factor” in the compromise, says independent Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli. “That the Senate is in play made it all the more important,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Fracking has revitalized Colorado's energy sector, and the oil and gas industry was poised to flood the state with millions in advertising aimed at defeating the antifracking measures. Udall and Hickenlooper were concerned that, if the measures were defeated, the Senate seat and governorship could be collateral damage.

Udall lauded the compromise Monday. "This deal – which averts a divisive and counterproductive ballot fight over one-size-fits-all restrictions – is welcome news and underscores how all of Colorado benefits when we find common ground," Udall said in a statement.

The Senate race in Colorado became competitive in March, when Representative Gardner jumped in and Republicans coalesced around him.

“When this year began, we did not have the Udall seat on the list as a seat that would be potentially at risk,” Mr. Ciruli says. “Once Cory Gardner got in it, and polls indicated it was within a few percentage points, it changed the entire character of the race.”

It also changed the significance of the fracking initiatives. Democratic strategist Steve McMahon told Time magazine in June that the ballot initiatives could motivate Republicans to turn out in force for November’s midterms.

“The concern among many Democrats is that the ballot initiatives that we’re talking about are very, very appealing the farther left you go; troubling at the center; and on the right, they are turnout machines,” he told Time.

Gardner has criticized Udall’s record on oil and gas, accusing him of an “extreme anti-energy agenda.”

"Colorado has the most stringent energy regulations in the country,” Gardner said in a statement released to the Monitor Tuesday. “I don't believe we need to further regulate our energy economy, and Congressman Polis should have dropped these destructive initiatives long ago.”

One initiative Polis backed would have mandated that drilling operations be set back 2,000 feet from homes and schools. The other would have added an “environmental bill of rights” to the state constitution.

Overall, the oil and gas industry is pleased with the compromise – especially given how crucial fracking is to oil and gas development in the state.

Energy production supports 200,000 jobs in Colorado, according to the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based oil and gas industry trade organization. The industry says there are already sufficient environmental safeguards.

“Colorado has some of the strongest oil and gas regulations in the country,” API President and CEO Jack Gerard said in a statement Monday, adding that the industry will continue to work “with state regulators and local communities to protect the environment while promoting economic growth.”

Late Monday, backers of two pro-fracking initiatives said they, too, would pull their measures off the November ballot. One measure would have penalized localities that banned fracking by withholding oil and gas revenue from them.

The compromise also means the state will drop its challenge to Longmont, Colo.’s fracking ban, Hickenlooper said. A state judge overturned the ban in late July. 

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