In the end, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., couldn't avoid it -- he had to vote on whether to approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. He chose "no."
Conservative groups tried pressuring Udall, mired in a tight re-election contest with GOP challenger and pipeline backer Rep. Cory Gardner, into taking a stance on Keystone XL for months. He did so Wednesday, joining nine other Democrats to oppose a bill mandating Keystone XL's construction, which passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, 12-10.
For the most part, Udall and Gardner have mirrored each other on energy issues -- they have copied each other's natural gas export bills, they both support the wind production tax credit and they both tout hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is an especially political battle in Colorado this year, as Democratic Rep. Jared Polis is helping bankroll ballot initiatives to restrict the drilling method that has brought fears of drinking water contamination.
"I am frustrated the Obama administration has taken more than five years to get to this point, but the technical review process needs to run its course," Udall said. "That's why I continue to vote against all amendments -- Democratic or Republican -- that would inject more politics into the pipeline review process."
But Udall's vote revved up his critics.
“Senator Udall has recklessly pursued a policy of division throughout his tenure in Congress, making that negativity the driving force of his campaign. With almost two-thirds of Coloradans in support of Keystone and Senator Udall opposed, it's clear he isn't changing that course any time soon," said Gardner, referring to a poll by industry-aligned Consumers Energy Alliance.
American Energy Alliance, the advocacy arm of the conservative Institute for Energy Research, said it planned to push back, as spokesman Chris Warren said that Udall "can't stay on the fence forever when it comes to Keystone XL." Carlton Carroll, a spokesman with the American Petroleum Institute, which has run ads touting Keystone XL in Colorado, said the oil-and-gas industry group would continue to focus on gaining congressional support because "foot-dragging by this administration means Congress must act," though he did not say whether API would specifically target Udall.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm for Senate Republicans, which had slammed Udall for his support of the EPA power plant proposed rule, blasted the Colorado Democrat on the Keystone XL measure.
"Whether political financial motives are behind Mark Udall's extremist votes is unknown, however, the fact is that in 2008 he promised to be an independent voice in the Senate, but instead has voted with Barack Obama 99 percent of the time — even voting against initiatives that would help Coloradans," said Brook Hougesen, an NRSC spokeswoman.
Udall appears to be betting that Colorado's transition from its red-leaning tendencies to a more purple color in recent elections will continue. He gave full-throated backing to a proposed EPA rule limiting carbon emissions from existing power plants, billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate Action PAC is spending money in Colorado to help defeat Gardner.
"Climate change is threatening Colorado's special way of life. Coloradans have seen firsthand the harmful effects of climate change, including severe drought, record wildfires and reduced snowpack," Udall said in a June 2 statement when the EPA announced its proposed rule, the most aggressive action the agency has taken to address climate change.
Udall remained one of a handful of question marks when the Senate was heading toward a May floor vote on the controversial Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL project. He dodged questions from reporters leading up to the vote's eventual collapse and, for a time, it appeared he had dodged a bullet as well.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, though, is also facing stiff competition from a Republican House member for her Senate seat. The Louisiana Democrat is a Keystone XL booster who co-sponsored the legislation Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed Wednesday. She is chairwoman of that committee.
Landrieu beat back GOP accusations that she held the vote more for politics than policy, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the bill would not get a vote after Republicans refused a May deal to bring it to the floor in exchange for an amendment-free vote on energy-efficiency legislation.
Similarly, Udall sought to douse the political firestorm that accompanied the vote.
"The Keystone XL pipeline has been needlessly politicized. Coloradans expect better from their leaders. If this pipeline were being routed through Colorado, my constituents would want to know that science — and not politics — determined the way forward," he said.