Udall Senate Run Unlikely If Campbell Stays Put

Posted March 12, 2003 at 5:03pm

Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) sounds like a man who wants to run for the Senate.

“This state is deeply imbedded in who I am,” he said recently. “My mother’s a Coloradan. I’ve lived my entire adult life here. I’m proud to serve the people of Colorado in Congress. But the Senate of course gives you a great platform to build on.”

Unfortunately for Udall and Democrats who are desperate to pick up seats in the chamber, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) is also sounding like a man who wants to run for the Senate — again.

“While he hasn’t announced, Senator Campbell fully intends to seek re-election, and we’re putting the pieces together for a vigorous campaign,” said Sean Tonner, a Colorado Republican consultant who is working with the 69-year-old incumbent.

Campbell told Udall as much during a phone conversation just after Election Day 2002. And while the topic did not come up when the two had a private lunch together last month, Udall came away with the impression that Campbell still plans to seek a third term in 2004.

Nevertheless, some Democrats in Colorado and Washington, D.C., cling to the belief that the often unpredictable Senator could wind up bowing out at the last minute, paving the way for the 52-year-old Congressman to run and win.

“I think Udall’s going to go,” one national Democratic strategist said hopefully. “I hear Campbell’s wife is opposed to him running again.”

That may be a thin reed for Democrats to cling to, but they’re clinging anyway.

While there are perhaps three or four Colorado Democrats who are capable of running a competitive race in a state that is trending Republican, Udall, with his political pedigree and proven money-raising ability, is considered the party’s most promising Senate candidate. He spent $1.2 million on his first House race in 1998 and $1.3 million two years later. Last year, Udall spent $776,000, and he starts this cycle with $466,000 in the bank. Campbell had just $93,000 as of Dec. 31.

Udall is all too aware that his party’s aspirations, at home and in Washington, have become intertwined with his own. And he leaves little doubt that he’d be running for Senate if Campbell weren’t.

“An open seat in Colorado is certainly winnable,” he said. “Senator [Wayne] Allard [R] got 51 percent of the vote [when he was first elected in 1996]. George Bush got 51 percent of the vote [in 2000]. It’s still a swing state.”

But whether running as a Democrat — as he did for his three House terms and his first Senate election in 1992 — or as a Republican after he switched parties in 1995, Campbell has always been a formidable votegetter and displays the kind of independence that Coloradans like in their politicians.

“Senator Campbell is one of the most popular people in Colorado — along with Governor [Bill] Owens [R] and John Elway,” Tonner said.

That may be hyperbole, but it certainly explains why Udall and other top-tier Democrats are steering clear of the Senate race for now. Still, Udall insists that he hasn’t slammed the door on running.

“Although the clock is ticking, I feel I have some additional time in which to make a decision,” he said, adding that he expects to have an answer sometime this summer.

For Udall, who has just begun his third term in the House, the decision wouldn’t just be political but personal. Despite their differences on environmental and economic policy, Udall and Campbell are friends. The Congressman’s late father, former Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.), was also close to Campbell and served as a mentor to the Coloradan when he first arrived in Washington.

“I think in this business you operate under the assumption that you’re going to run against friends,” Udall said.

Another factor in Udall’s decision-making process may be redistricting. Now that Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the Colorado Legislature, there is some talk that the GOP will try to redraw the state’s Congressional map this year, to the detriment of Udall and other Democrats.

“I take that pretty seriously,” Udall said. “I know some colleagues of mine think I’m crazy. But if I’m backed into a corner and end up in a district that’s 60 percent Republican, that would certainly give me pause, and I’d look more seriously at running statewide.”

The most recent round of redistricting, however, may prove to be a blessing for Udall if it isn’t undone. When the state gained a Congressional seat through reapportionment after the 2000 Census, Udall had to give up some of his turf in the metro Denver area, and his district pushed westward.

Where left-leaning Boulder County once provided half of his constituents, it now represents just a quarter of the 2nd district. The district includes farming communities, high-tech enclaves and recreational areas with a sizeable population of service workers.

It’s still a Democratic district — Al Gore would have won 52 percent there in the 2000 presidential election — but it is also more diverse than it was, giving Udall a political entree into the state’s Western Slope, where Campbell lives — a part of Colorado that feels estranged from metro Denver and the Front Range. Udall is opening a second district office outside Vail, and there is a broader array of issues that his constituents care about.

This subtle shift in focus is an asset for Udall, political strategists believe, as he ponders a statewide run in 2004 or beyond. Now, he won’t always be associated with the “crazies” in Boulder and will be required to have a fuller grasp of statewide issues.

“I have a sense of the interplay of the various economies of the state,” Udall said. “People realize that I don’t vote with Boulder all the time.”

While Udall contemplates his next move, both political parties are trying to imagine what happens if Campbell or Udall aren’t on the ballot next year.

If Campbell pulls a surprise, the GOP could turn to Owens, who has made no secret of his national ambitions, Reps. Scott McInnis and Tom Tancredo, or state Treasurer Mike Coffman.

On the Democratic side, “everybody is doing this right now,” said a shrugging Democratic National Committeewoman Ramona Martinez, who is also a Denver City Councilwoman.

If Udall doesn’t run, the Democratic wish list quickly turns to state Attorney General Ken Salazar and outgoing Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter Jr. is also exploring a bid.

But Salazar, a conservative Democrat from the San Luis Valley, is widely assumed to be far more interested in running for governor in 2006 than for the Senate. And Webb, who considered challenging Allard in 2002, has not said what he plans to do when his second term ends this July.

Invited to comment for this article, Webb, through a spokeswoman, wondered what Udall had said. When informed that the Congressman was far more likely to run for an open Senate seat than challenge an incumbent, Webb boasted, “I’m not afraid of Ben Campbell.”

Asked for an explanation, the spokeswoman, C.L. Harmer, replied, “You’re free to interpret.”