By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
“Blue Tuesday” engulfed Colorado in a storm of change — propelling Democrat Mark Udall into the U.S. Senate and blowing Republican Bob Schaffer out of the water. The cold reality hit Republicans early in the evening, as election returns from key conservative counties favored Udall.
Maggie Fox and her husband, Mark Udall, celebrate his election to the U.S. Senate as the couple takes the stage for his acceptance speech.
“Can you feel the winds of change blowing?” Udall asked ecstatic Democrats jammed into the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Denver. “For once, I’m not kidding. We’ve won the U.S. Senate race!”
The election results from Larimer, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties were startling — the “red” territories had turned “blue” in favor of Udall. The seismic shift was so staggering that even the last huge Republican bastion of El Paso County couldn’t save Schaffer — and its election tallies were delayed for hours.
Udall had roped 51.9 percent of the vote in Larimer County, 53.85 percent in Arapahoe County, 52.63 percent in Jefferson County and 38.21 percent in El Paso County. Republicans outnumber Democrats by two to one in El Paso County. However, Democrats who edge beyond the 38 percent threshold can win statewide elections. Both U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and Gov. Bill Ritter got more than 38 percent of the vote in El Paso County in 2004 and 2006, respectively.
The Nov. 4 election snatched the Republican seat vacated by U.S. Senator Wayne Allard and handed it to Udall, who lassoed 55.11 percent of the vote, compared to 44.89 percent for Schaffer.
Earlier that day, Udall called Schaffer to wish him luck — as he has done traditionally with each of his opponents. Shortly before 9 p.m., Schaffer called Udall to concede the race.
“He called me, ‘his senator,’ and wished me well and said that he wants me to be successful,” said Udall of the conversation. “I’m very appreciative of that.”
Grasping his victory in the Sheraton Hotel ballroom, Udall told the boisterous crowd of the call and declared, “Bob’s a class act.”
The battle was over.
“We (both) want an America that’s strong, that’s free and that’s respected — so my respect goes out to Congressman Schaffer,” Udall said.
“I said this campaign was never about me. It’s about you. It’s about us,” said Udall. “It’s about us standing together to face some of the biggest challenges the United States of America has ever faced.”
The Democrat promised to work hard to “restore our economy, build a sustainable energy future, take care of our veterans and bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end.”
Udall thanked his family, the voters, the volunteers and the campaign staff. He lauded Mike Melanson as the “best campaign manager ever!”
The Democratic candidate was splashed across the massive TV screens — muted to silent — at the Republican “victory” party at the Marriott Hotel in Lone Tree. Children jumped up and down punching patriotic balloons into the air amid grim-faced adults hoping for miracles. Radio talk show host Dan Caplis attempted to lift crestfallen spirits, reminding Republicans that they’re on the “right side of liberty” regardless of the election outcome.
After Allard introduced him, Schaffer stood with his wife, Maureen, and family members.
“I hope you’ll join me in issuing a great congratulations to Congressman Mark Udall — Senator-elect Mark Udall,” said Schaffer.
“Obviously the outcome isn’t exactly what we in this room expected, and the way we’d all hoped,” he told the somber crowd. “We’ve got an awful lot to be proud of as well. Good campaigns don’t end on Election Day. Win or lose, if the ideas matter, if the values are for real, if the vision is clear, we just keep right on going.”
“Two years ago we had a party that was not in the best organization — in a little bit of disarray,” Schaffer said, inferring that improvements evolved under the leadership of state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams without mentioning his name. Wadhams also served as Schaffer’s campaign manager.
The election outcome astonished Republicans, especially those who had received the “Hang onto your hats!” e-mail from Wadhams a couple of days before the election.
“There’s been a shift in the wind. Folks, our polling as of last night at 10:04 p.m. has this race at 46 percent to 43 percent. Boulder Liberal Mark Udall has a razor thin lead within the margin of error heading into the final weekend before Election Day. Bob Schaffer has a clear shot at victory,” declared Wadhams.
In a postscript e-mail, Wadhams said The Denver Post poll showed Schaffer trailing Udall by 4 percentage points — within the margin of error. “This is yet another confirmation that the race has tightened and undecided voters are up for grabs.”
If the polls were tightening, what happened?
Apparently, more Colorado voters trusted the image of the western-bred Udall than the oil company executive Schaffer, an ironclad conservative who portrayed himself as the mainstream candidate.
Wadhams relentlessly glued the “Boulder liberal” label on Udall, but it didn’t stick. In the final five weeks of the election, the Democrat gained “maverick” points when he bucked his own party — voting twice against the Wall Street bailout packages.
“Calls are mixed from people who say, ‘No!’ and people who say ‘Hell, no!’” said Udall, who evidently listened to voters’ complaints. His vote against the rescue seemed consistent with his campaign theme, “Standing Up for Colorado.”
It was one of the few positions that derived agreement between the candidates — but the five-term Democratic congressman’s votes were like golden horseshoes that hit the mark.
Schaffer had represented the 4th Congressional District from 1997 to 2003, then left, honoring a promise to limit himself to three terms. He took a position as senior vice president for Denver-based Aspect Energy, which resigned at the start of the campaign.
On the campaign trail, he repeatedly said it was more advantageous that he had been in the private sector rather than in Congress contributing to the problems.
Democrat strategists nailed Schaffer as “Big Oil Bob” because he had supported the 2001 Energy Bill, which included billions for energy exploration and tax incentives for the gas and oil industry, and he received more than $150,000 in U.S. Senate campaign contributions from the industry.
However, when gas topped $4 at the pump in July, Schaffer’s polling numbers climbed to equal Udall’s as some voters apparently concluded it was time to lift restrictions on the development of energy resources.
It was one of three times polls showed the candidates neck and neck. Udall began climbing in the polls after the Wall Street crash and the congressional votes on the proposed rescue packages that began Sept. 29.
That was only one of the problems that plagued Schaffer’s candidacy. Another source of contention was the disparity in money pouring into the campaigns and to outside committees that pummeled opponents in ads.
“I would point out that close to $17 million in outside money was directed towards me,” said Udall of negative electronic ads and mailers. “And something in the order of $10 million was directed at Congressman Schaffer.”
“In the end, this election was decided on my message and my record,” said Udall. “My record has been working across the aisle, looking for the best ideas — whether they’re from the Democratic or Republican parties.”
“That is absolute bunk,” retorted Wadhams, noting that the Udall campaign kept increasing its estimates of how much outside interests had spent on attack ads. “It’s absolute bullshit that they were outspent. He said $17 million versus $10 million? That’s bullshit. That is wrong.”
Wadhams said he thinks both campaigns received the same valued help from outside committees. He also noted that Udall began attacking Schaffer as “big oil Bob” in the summer.
“Poor Mark Udall! That he was besieged by attack ads is bullshit,” declared Wadhams, adding that the Democrat’s campaign routinely portrayed Schaffer and his campaign as bruising bullies. “They played the victim really well.”
Udall said that he wouldn’t have changed any of his campaign’s strategy.
“I wouldn’t do anything different. I think it worked for us and it’s part of our success,” said Udall.
However, he noted, the campaign had no control over ads run by most outside committees.
Wadhams said that there were four main obstacles to Schaffer’s campaign that were insurmountable. At the top of his list was President George Bush’s “deep unpopularity” among voters, then Democrat president-elect Barack Obama’s charisma, the economic downturn and collapse of Wall Street and, finally, Udall’s energy position change to incorporate offshore oil drilling when gas prices topped $4 per gallon at the pump.
Schaffer would have had a greater chance of winning, Wadhams said, had Udall voted for the bailout package or Sen. John McCain had voted against it.
“That would have been consistent with McCain’s record,” said Wadhams. “I think it would have changed what happened in the presidential race and it would have helped Republican candidates across the country.”
After the Wall Street debacle, Wadhams said, “Republicans couldn’t gain any traction.”
“President Bush led us down a road that was a cul de sac,” said Udall, agreeing that Bush had alienated voters. “The people of this country spoke loudly and clearly that they want to travel down a different road.”
Udall said the bottom line is that voters liked his record and bipartisan philosophy.
“In the West, we solve problems. We work together regardless of our party affiliation,” Udall said. “Clearly the voters want that in Washington, too.”
The last time Colorado had two Democratic senators was 1975 to1979, when Gary Hart and Floyd Haskell served overlapping terms.
This is the first time in 20 years that Colorado voters elected a Boulder County Democrat to the U.S. Senate. In 1986, then U.S. Rep. Tim Wirth squeaked past Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Kramer of CD 5 — 49.9 percent to 48.4 percent. Wirth served from 1987 to 1993.
The Republican Party has begun the “Monday morning quarterbacking” — reviewing the races, positive rushes, errors and data culled from the election.
Faced with the diminishing voter registrations, the GOP will have to consider whether to stay on the path or ride the wide-open range.
Wadhams said the party would gain from adhering to the basic principles of President Ronald Reagan — lower taxes, less government and a strong national defense — but there is a concern that younger voters have no conscious image of Reagan, who left office 20 years ago.
“Ronald Reagan showed us that we need a positive agenda,” said Wadhams.