Energy issues are likely to fade heading into November following a deal brokered by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Jared Polis to shelve a pair of anti-fracking ballot measures, which Polis had helped finance, and two oil and gas industry-backed ones.
That disarms one of GOP Rep. Cory Gardner's top tactics to slam Udall, the incumbent Senate Democrat. Gardner and Udall largely hold the same positions on a host of energy issues, but Gardner had criticized Udall for being slow to come out against the anti-fracking proposals, which had divided the state's Democrats and seemed poised to drive conservatives to the polls.
"Energy will continue to be an important issue, but without the ballot initiative now Udall is somewhat less vulnerable because he has consistently argued that he thinks there can be fracking if it's properly regulated," Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Colorado pollster and head of Ciruli Associates, told the Washington Examiner. "He's tried to go down the middle."
Ciruli added Gardner had been "aggressive" and "efficiently" so in opposition the anti-fracking measures, which he and industry supporters said would stymie investment and jobs in the state. Where the campaign goes now is less certain R12; the Gardner campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the caucus' campaign arm, did not return requests for comment.
Whether the oil and gas industry pulls its advertising dollars out of the state remains a question. The American Petroleum Institute, which launched an advertising campaign in an attempt to thwart a legislative deal to add new regulations for fracking that collapsed in July, did not directly answer whether it would change its strategy now that the fracking initiatives were off the table.
That the industry prefers Gardner, though, is clear — donations have flowed to him instead of Udall since the Republican congressman announced he'd enter the race in late February. But Ciruli noted the industry must be careful not to alienate Hickenlooper, a Democratic ally who has championed fracking in the state and in Washington.
Even some in the energy industry are doubting how much it will factor into the respective campaigns going forward following the Hickenlooper-Polis deal, which calls for an 18-member commission comprised of state and local officials, residents and industry representatives.
Energy will become a "second tier issue" since there's "only so much daylight" between the candidates on the issues, said Shawn Martini, a Colorado-based spokesman with business- and industry-group Consumers Energy Alliance. He told the Examiner that Gardner might be able to transition to discussing the balance between public lands and energy development in the context of spurring job growth for economically depressed regions of the state, such as Grand Junction.
But Udall is "right there with" Gardner on that front, said Chris Harris, a spokesman for the Udall campaign. He said energy would continue to play a role in the race, such as with climate change — the League of Conservation Voters, for example, has already spent $1 million on advertisements slamming Gardner.
Harris' comments, though, indicated the campaign is looking to shift its attention to other areas.
"The ads that would have happened won't happen. It's hard to say where the issues where the candidates agreed will become a flashpoint in the race," Harris told the Examiner.
Democrats plan to continue hammering away at claims that Gardner is too socially extreme for the state, particularly on women's reproductive rights issues and birth control.
"Without a doubt the top issue in this race for some time has been Cory Gardner's support for measures that restrict a woman's access to common forms of birth control. It's been all about personhood for some time," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the caucus' campaign arm.
Ciruli noted that Gardner has been "on the defensive" as the attention has shifted to birth control. But whether that's moved the needle significantly is uncertain, as polling for the race is still within the margin of error.
"It looks to me like we're going right to the end with sort of a street battle," Ciruli said of efforts to get voters to the polls. "Ultimately, this election is about trying to find and persuade and turn out these special constituencies, one of which is women."