A nonprofit group associated with a pair of conservative billionaires this week launched a nearly $1 million ad campaign against U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, linking the incumbent Democrat to the federal health care law known as Obamacare.
“Millions have lost their health insurance, millions can’t see their own doctors, and millions are paying more and getting less,” says a woman in the race’s first major attack ad. “Obamacare doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. Tell Senator Udall to stop thinking about politics and start thinking about people.”
The 30-second Americans for Prosperity ad began airing on Monday in the Denver and Colorado Springs television markets and on digital platforms, according to state AFP spokesman Dustin Zvonek. Altogether, the group is spending $970,000 on a three-week ad buy. But it’s only the opening salvo in what Zvonek promises will be an intensive “accountability effort” involving phone banks and door-to-door contacts by some of the organization’s 68,000 Colorado members.
The Koch brothers — Charles and David, industrialists who head a multi-billion-dollar oil and manufacturing empire — are the public face of Americans for Prosperity, although other wealthy conservatives also fund the group, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors. Udall is the latest target in a series of similar ads attacking incumbent Democrats across the country over their support for the health care law.
U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, who joined the race just three weeks ago, is the leading Republican seeking his party’s nomination in what has suddenly become one of the country’s most hotly contested Senate races, with control of the body potentially at stake. Udall is unopposed for the Democratic nomination to a second term. The AFP ad doesn’t mention Gardner, in keeping with election law that forbids a nonprofit of its kind from explicitly endorsing a candidate.
“Our opponent is Obamacare,” Zvonek told The Colorado Statesman after the ads began airing. “Part of our reasoning to run these ads now is with the effect of Obamacare being felt each and every day” — he cited cancelled policies, spikes in premiums, compliance delays set by the Obama administration — “we feel like it’s a great time for us to have this discussion. We want a policy change. That’s why we’re holding members of Congress like Sen. Udall accountable for supporting Obamacare.”
Zvonek added that he expected Democrats to talk about anything but Obamacare in response to the ad blitz.
“The problem they have is that they’re not going to jump out and defend this policy,” Zvonek said. “What you’ll see from them is they’ll attack AFP as an organization — it’s a lot easier for them to attack the messenger than to defend his support for Obamacare.”
He was right in part — the Udall campaign almost immediately attempted to link Gardner with the Koch brothers, claiming both shared widely unpopular positions on a host of issues — but a Udall spokesman said the senator would be happy to have a discussion about health care policy.
“It’s no surprise that the radical Koch brothers are planning to spend millions to prop up Congressman Cory Gardner,” said Udall campaign communications director Chris Harris. “He has been a reliable vote for their radical agenda that would end Medicare as we know it, slash Social Security for our seniors, and go back to the days when insurance companies could deny you coverage for a preexisting condition. Coloradans want their leaders to fight for Colorado families, not radical special interests.”
Udall took aim at the ad’s public sponsors, too, quipping, “Koch is bad for you in any form or fashion, by the way,” in a fiery stump speech at the Adams County Democratic assembly on Saturday in Brighton.
“They’re going to spend millions of dollars to tear me down. They don’t want me in the Senate because they know I fight for Colorado’s interest, not the Koch brothers’ interests,” Udall said. “We sure as heck aren’t going to take our cues from dark-money groups that bombard the airwaves with ads trying to buy a Senate seat. You can’t buy a Senate seat in Colorado, you have to earn a Senate seat in Colorado.”
In an interview with The Statesman, however, Harris said that his boss didn’t plan on shying away from talking about Obamacare.
“Sen. Udall knows that health care affects all Colorado families, including his family. It’s something we need to get right. We need to fix what’s wrong with the law, but we can’t go backwards to where we were before,” Harris said.
“He absolutely thinks we cannot go back to letting insurance companies make decisions for Colorado residents,” Harris continued, adding that “costs spiraling out of control” were a hallmark of the health insurance landscape before the law started going into effect. “No family should ever have coverage denied to them because of preexisting conditions, and that’s where we were before. Coloradans know we can’t go back to the way the health care system was, when people would lose coverage if they hit an annual or lifetime cap or people could get denied care simply because they had a preexisting condition.”
The ads began airing the day before state Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, dropped out of the Senate primary, saying “we need all hands on deck in our fight to defeat Mark Udall.” He said in a statement released on Tuesday that he expects Gardner will be the nominee but will wait to make an endorsement until his “friend and colleague” state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, has decided what to do. (At press time, Baumgardner was “still running for United States Senate,” according to his campaign website and a message he sent this week to supporters.)
Republicans pick a Senate nominee in the June 24 primary after designating the ballot at the April 12 state assembly. Hill’s announcement follows the withdrawal from the primary by Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and state Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, who both stepped aside and endorsed Gardner when the Yuma Republican jumped in.
Unlike some other ads AFP has run against vulnerable Democrats — the Washington Post reported last month that the nonprofit had spent nearly $30 million on the attacks since October — the campaign aimed at Udall discusses the health care law in generalities, rather than featuring so-called victims of Obamacare. In some cases, the ads were at least partially debunked by fact-checkers who reported that those featured might have saved money and had better insurance coverage under the new law, contrary to claims made in the commercials.
Instead, the Colorado ad features an actress speaking directly to the camera. “People don’t like political ads. I don’t like them either,” she begins. “But health care isn’t about politics. It’s about people.”
Some of Udall’s defenders skewered the ad’s opening as laughable, considering a nearly identical ad — featuring the same actress, likewise professing her dislike for political ads — is airing in Louisiana, attacking U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
The liberal Americans United for Change group — under the local banner of Protect Your Care — mocked the anti-Udall ad as “recycled from last fall and (using) a non-Colorado actor reading from a generic script.” The goal of the ad, the group charges, “is to take health care away from millions of Americans who now have health insurance, including more than 220,000 Coloradans who have signed up through the state’s exchange.”
Recent polling shows the attack on Udall could cost him. In a Quinnipiac poll released last month, 60 percent of registered voters in Colorado opposed the law and only 37 percent supported it. Asked whether a politician’s position on the law would influence their vote, 52 percent of respondents said it would make them less likely to vote for a candidate who supported Obamacare and 29 percent said it would make them more likely.
A Public Policy Polling survey released this week showed Gardner just 2 points behind Udall — compared with Buck’s 4-point deficit in December, when he was considered the front-runner — and Colorado voters evenly split over Udall’s job performance, with 41 percent approving and 40 percent disapproving.
See the March 21 print edition for full photo coverage.