When Democratic Sen. Mark Udall unveiled his first campaign ad last spring, the subject was his opponent's stance on abortion.
"It comes down to respect. For women, and our lives," a narrator intones. "So Congressman Cory Gardner's history promoting harsh anti-abortion laws is disturbing," the ad says, criticizing Congressman Gardner for championing "an eight year crusade to outlaw birth control."
In some ways, it was an odd subject for a debut ad from a candidate, and one that set the tone for the next six months of the Colorado Senate campaign.
"If Colorado's US Senate race were a movie, the set would be a gynecologist's office," one Denver Post article declared this fall.
But four years ago – also in a midterm election that was tough on incumbent Democrats – Democratic Senate candidate Michael Bennet prevailed, despite trailing his opponent in almost every poll leading up to the election. The credit went in large part to a late barrage of ads focusing on similar issues. On Election Day, women voted for him by a 16-point margin.
Now Udall and Democratic candidates in several other states are trying to recreate Senator Bennet's strategy, both with get-out-the-vote efforts and the relentless focus on women. But Udall has fallen behind in most polls, and Gardner is gaining momentum. The relentless focus on reproductive rights, most analysts agree, hasn't helped in the way his campaign had hoped and seems to have hurt him. It may be a sign that Republicans are learning how better to counter that particular Democratic strategy, as well as a signal that voters can take only so much attention to a single issue.
"I think really the problem here is that Udall is running this one-issue campaign, and voters don't like it," says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for The Cook Political Report. "Democrats were aiming at suburban women, thinking that would make the difference, and I think that’s backfired on them."
It's too soon to declare Udall's campaign over. Most of the polls show Gardner's lead within the margin of error, and a couple recent polls by Democratic pollsters give Udall an edge. Moreover, Bennet pulled out his 2010 victory despite consistently lagging in the polls. And while a big piece of his victory was the women's vote, analysts also credit Hispanic voters and the success of his get-out-the-vote machine, which Udall's campaign is similarly trying to duplicate.
But to whatever degree Udall's campaign has gained him women voters, it also appears to have hurt him. When the Denver Post surprised almost everyone by endorsing Gardner earlier this month, it criticized Udall, in particular, for his "obnoxious one-issue campaign."
Gardner supporters have started referring to Udall as "Mark Uterus" and conservative Washington Post columnist George Will recently lambasted Udall and the Democratic Party for thinking "women can be panicked into voting about mythical menaces to [access to contraceptives and abortion]."
What's the difference between now and four years ago?
Partly, it's the candidate. In 2010, Bennet faced a hard-core social conservative in his opponent, Ken Buck, who made no secret of his opposition to abortion in all instances, and once said voters should vote for him "because I do not wear high heels." Republicans conceded after their loss that social issues may have cost them the election, and they appear to have learned from the race with their choice of candidate this time around.
"Gardner's nomination was no accident; it was carefully orchestrated," says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.
Gardner – as Udall's campaign has repeatedly emphasized – has a solidly conservative record, and twice backed "personhood" amendments in Colorado that would redefine a person's rights as beginning at conception, and which many believe would make abortion and some contraception illegal. He is still a backer of a federal personhood bill, but this year – anticipating the Democrats' line of attack – Gardner came out against the latest personhood ballot initiative in Colorado. It was a move that Udall's campaign called an election-year trick, but which served to deflate some of Udall's attacks.
Over the summer, Gardner went on the offensive even more, coming out for over-the-counter sale of oral contraceptives. That move was repeated by Republican Senate candidates in North Carolina, Virginia, and Minnesota, with reproductive-rights proponents criticizing it as a campaign stunt, noting that Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act – which requires insurers to provide contraceptive coverage – and that women would pay more for over-the-counter pills. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund labeled it "a cynical political attempt to whitewash [Gardner's] terrible record and agenda for women's health."
But Gardner's position made it harder for Udall to mount a successful campaign based almost entirely on skewering his opponent on reproductive rights. If Gardner wins, says Ms. Duffy, more Republicans may start embracing over-the-counter contraception, and finding similar ways to counter campaigns designed to make them look extreme on social issues.
"Republicans in Colorado were clearly anticipating this sort of campaign out of Democrats this year," says Professor Masket. "They've crafted some messages to try to address that, chiefly criticizing Udall for being a one-trick pony."
And Gardner, Masket adds, "has at least symbolically moderated his stances. ... He may still hold some very conservative views on reproductive rights, but at least on these very visible parts of it, he’s made himself look not so extreme."
That tactic could have a lasting impact for Republicans.
If Gardner ends up winning, says Masket, "and the interpretation of that is that he won by offering a more moderate face on abortion, that sends a huge message to the rest of the Republican party and that will be at play in their presidential nomination campaigns in a couple years."
Still, he notes, while it's true that Udall isn't doing as well right now as many had though, not all of that may be his fault.
"This has been a somewhat worse year for Democrats incumbents than had been expected," says Masket. "It's just a bad year to be running for reelection."