The Udall clan is a distinguished Western political family, the Kennedys in cowboy boots (though hiking boots might be a more apt metaphor nowadays). They have been a presence on the regional political scene for four generations, with various antecedents serving in state legislatures, mayoral offices, and on state supreme courts dating back to 1887. Two of the family’s leading lights were Morris “Mo” Udall (1922-1998), Democratic Arizona Congressman who represented the state’s 2nd Congressional District from 1961 to 1991 (and a serious primary challenger to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential cycle); and his brother Stewart Udall (1920-2010), who previously held the same seat (1955-1961), relinquishing it to serve as Secretary of the Interior through the entire Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-1969).
Today, Udalls occupy two seats on the Democratic side in the U.S. Senate (at one point a second cousin, Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, also served): Mark (son of “Mo”), of Colorado, and his cousin Tom (son of Stewart), of New Mexico. Both are freshman and up for reelection this year, and both voted for passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. According to recent polls, Mark Udall could be in deep trouble for this vote; Tom Udall less so because he enjoys broad support on other issues in New Mexico. Besides family ties, their career parallels are interesting. For example, both served in the U.S. House of Representatives (Mark: Colorado’s 2nd District; Tom: New Mexico’s 3rd District) from 1999 to 2009, both enjoying four reelections before winning their respective Senate seats the same year.
Mark easily won his seat in 2008 by riding Barack Obama’s coattails as the president turned the Centennial State from red to blue, Udall defeating Republican Bob Schaffer and flipping retiring Republican Wayne Allard’s seat to the Democrats. In the same election cycle in New Mexico, cousin Tom did the same thing by beating GOP candidate Stephen Pearce to flip the retiring Pete Domenici’s GOP seat to the Democrats. Obama also carried New Mexico thanks to its large Hispanic vote, hammering John McCain by 15 percentage points. In 2012 the president beat Mitt Romney by 10% in “The Land of Enchantment.” Besides Republican Susana Martinez residing in the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe, New Mexico is as blue as any northeastern state. The other U.S. Senate seat is occupied by Democrat Martin Heinrich.
But in the “Centennial State” a recent Quinnipiac poll has Barack Obama sporting a 59% disapproval rating among Colorado voters, after having carried the state with 53% and 51% in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Obamacare itself has a negative rating of 56% and growing. Mark Udall finds himself in the company of such Senate Democrats as Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Mark Begich, Jeanne Shaheen, Kay Hagan (among others) who are on the Voted-for-Obamacare-Endangered-Democrats Species List. The Colorado GOP primary field is crowded, but Mark will likely face Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck on Election Day. Quinnipiac also has 47% of voters saying that Udall doesn’t deserve a second term. Buck previously ran for the Senate in 2010, losing to Democrat Michael Bennet, who had been appointed by Democratic Governor Bill Ritter to fill Ken Salazar’s seat, when the latter was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Obama. It was a close race: Bennett 48%, Buck 46%. A recent Real Clear Politics-Public Policy Polling sampling has Udall-Buck at a similar 46%-42%. But Buck’s numbers are likely to improve depending on the human and economic carnage Obamacare visits on Colorado voters in 2014.
Complicating Mark Udall’s already shaky position are recent allegations that his deputy chief of staff tried to intimidate the Colorado Division of Insurance (DOI) into fudging statistics that stated a quarter million Coloradans had had as of mid-November their healthcare policies canceled thanks to Obamacare. According to the Complete Colorado blog’s Todd Shepherd, in the attempted media whitewash “Udall’s office lobbied that agency to revise the figure, or revise their definition of what qualified as a cancellation.” The Udall camp maintained that only 13,000 state residents had actually lost coverage, and the rest could make their old coverage ACA-compliant with their present insurers, or join the state exchange. This prompted DOI Director of External Affairs Jo Donlin to leak an e-mail stating: “Sen. Udall says our numbers were wrong. They are not wrong. Cancellation notices affected 249,199 people. They want to trash our numbers….”
Cousin Tom will have an easier time of it, and will likely retain his seat. The New Mexico 2014 Republican primary features only two candidate so far: David Clements, the Assistant District Attorney of Dona Ana County, and Allen Weh, the CEO of CSI Aviation.* Lieutenant Governor John Sanchez and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry are as yet undeclared, but would prove strong candidates if they jump in, with Sanchez taking the lion’s share of the Hispanic vote a no-brainer. In 2008, then Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez dropped out of the Democratic primary process, handing the nomination to Udall, thus locking up the Hispanic vote in Udall’s 61% total victory over Stephen Pearce. John Sanchez’s weak spot is his abandoning a previous primary bid for Democrat Jeff Bingaman’s U.S. Senate seat in 2012 because of fundraising difficulties. Barring Sanchez’ entry, Tom Udall’s ongoing support of the seemingly unpassable “Dream Act” will ensure he keeps that important constituency in his column.
The Udall cousins share almost identical voting records. Other than their support of the ACA, they voted for the 2009 America Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“the Stimulus”), and the 2010 “Dodd-Frank” banking legislation. In the 2013 post-Newtown gun control controversy both voted to expand background checks for firearm purchases. For Mark, the background check vote could prove dicey, in light of the recent two recalls in Colorado of State Senate President John Morse and State Senator Angela Giron, two Democrats who angered 2nd Amendment- supporting Tea Party constituents over controversial assault weapon and universal background check legislation passed in March 2013. And Mark has gone on the record in support of the previous (1994-2004) national assault weapons ban: “I’ve come to the conclusion that military style weapons don’t have any place in our society.”
Ken Buck is a Tea Party favorite who will not only hammer Mark Udall for his ACA vote (and the current DOI scandal if it stays alive), but is a cultural conservative who opposes abortion in all cases except to protect the life of the mother. As a district attorney he was involved in a controversial sexual assault case, where he declined to prosecute a man charged with rape after concluding the woman had consented to the act in question. This coupled with his pro-life position will likely leave him vulnerable to a Democratic “war on women” smear campaign. He also antagonized Colorado women voters in the 2010 GOP primary contest by saying that voters should pick him over former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton because “I do not wear high heels.” Buck’s defense was that it was a comeback to a Norton joke to vote for her “because I wear high heels.” This is a trivial thing, but Buck’s sound bite might come back to haunt him. Buck is also a cancer survivor and in remission after a bout with lymphoma earlier in 2013. The question remains if Colorado voters will make Buck’s health prospects a factor in his election chances. But Colorado voters are certainly unpredictable and have that odd libertarian streak of late that is capable of recalling errant lawmakers and legalizing marijuana.
It remains to be seen if the ravages of Obamacare will alter the linear political trajectories of the cousins Udall. Some of that might be left to another Udall senatorial cousin: that would be second cousin Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, and scourge of the Affordable Care Act. This is a case where blood ain’t thicker than water, pardner.
* Allen Weh announced a Senate campaign after this article was written, but before it was published, and the article has been amended to reflect this. Also, the senator in the photo originally used to illustrate this piece was identified by UPI as Mark Udall. In fact, it was Sen. Jeff Bingaman.