Colorado Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner has a problem. His campaign has focused on energy, jobs, Obamacare, environmental regulation — on a whole range of issues important in Colorado and the nation right now. But Gardner has become another GOP candidate snagged on social issues as his opponent, Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, slams him relentlessly on the subject of contraception, claiming Gardner would "make birth control illegal."
There's some evidence Udall's attacks are working; he has a big lead among women voters in Colorado, although Gardner has an equally large lead among men, and the race appears virtually tied. (Udall leads by a single point in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, but there was no public polling of the Colorado race in August, so we won't really know until new surveys are done.)
Despite a generally favorable outlook, some Republican operatives across the country remain worried that Democrats might be able to eke out another victory or two on the argument that the GOP opposes women's rights. And Colorado is one of those races in which Democrats have made social issues a very big deal. So now, Gardner has released a new ad that has the feel of a candidate trying to one-up his opponent and take an issue off the table. Udall says Gardner will ban contraception? Well, not only is that not true, but Gardner will come out in favor of birth control pills for anybody, anytime, over the counter, no prescription needed. Here is Gardner's latest ad, which features the candidate talking to a group of women:
What’s the difference between me and Mark Udall on contraception? I believe the pill ought to be available over the counter, round the clock, without a prescription — cheaper and easier, for you.
Mark Udall’s plan is different. He wants to keep government bureaucrats between you and your healthcare plan. That means more politics, and more profits for drug companies.
My plan means more rights, more freedom, and more control for you -- and that’s a big difference.
Gardner has renounced his earlier support for so-called "personhood" initiatives that are the basis of the Democratic attacks. "The past four years as I've learned more about it, I've come to the conclusion it can ban common forms of contraception," Gardner told the AP in March. Gardner actually announced his support for selling the pill over the counter in June, and some other prominent Republicans, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, have embraced the idea as well. (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also approves.)
Now, Gardner's new ad is spurring lots of comment and explanation in GOP political circles. Is the ad a concession that Udall has succeeded in making the Senate race about birth control, of all things? Some Republicans argue that Gardner had to do it, and that his new position doesn't affect the overall balance of his campaign. "It's worth noting that this is just ONE Gardner ad; Mark Udall has devoted his ENTIRE campaign to this issue," writes one Republican operative. "The Gardner camp also put out a new wind [energy] ad yesterday — the over-the-counter ad is just one component of their message." And then:
But let's look at the big picture. Strategically speaking, Cory checkmated both Udall and the DSCC on this issue. Think about it, their entire campaign was based on the strategy of making Cory look radical on birth control/contraceptives/abortion. It's the playbook they used on Ken Buck — but the problem is that Cory isn't anything like Ken Buck. In response to that, Cory took the populist position on contraception both in terms of access and cost. That Udall allowed him to was a mistake, instead of criticizing he should have echoed Cory. Their entire campaign strategy has been effectively neutralized.
A source involved in the campaign makes a similar argument:
Senator Udall's entire campaign has been focused on social issues: specifically abortion and birth control. A majority of his ads (and the Democrats in general) have only focused on those two things. Cory penned his oped in the Denver Post before the Hobby Lobby decision was handed down, and has been discussing it on the trail with voters. All the while, Senator Udall and the Democrats have spent millions of dollars on TV insisting that Cory is against common forms of oral contraception. He isn't. That being said, this ad is only a small part of our messaging strategy as we head into the fall. We also released an ad yesterday touting Cory's support for renewable energy, and will continue to message on Obamacare, the economy, energy, etc.
Some other Colorado Republicans — those not actively involved in the campaign — are a little perplexed. Not everyone even knew that selling the birth control pill over the counter is a serious idea going around in Republican policy circles. For them, the Gardner ad felt like a GOP candidate allowing Democratic attacks to define a Republican campaign. From one state operative:
I am a little perplexed by this issue Cory has grabbed onto. The Democrats have been pounding him with millions in attack ads on his previous support of personhood and while I was initially concerned they could harm him since they ran in a vacuum for nearly three months, the polls still show this race at essentially tied in the mid-40s. This issue of getting contraception without a prescription was new to me when he announced it several weeks ago. I was not aware that there was serious discussion about this. His campaign must have polled and focus-grouped this issue and found it to be a way to reach those Republican and unaffiliated women who are fiscally conservative but socially liberal. These were the voters who wanted to vote Republican and did in 2010 up and down the ticket, but when it came to Ken Buck they couldn't do it because Buck gave them every reason to believe he was "extreme" on abortion.
How will this end? Maybe Gardner has in fact successfully neutralized the Udall attacks, as one strategist argues. But moving public opinion on an issue takes more than an op-ed and an ad; Gardner will have to keep talking about it on the campaign trail and in upcoming debates with Udall. If that is what Gardner is forced to do, then to that degree, at least, the Democrats — with all the pressing issues facing the Senate today — will have succeeded in making the Colorado race about contraception.