LAKEWOOD, Colo. — President Obama once helped usher in a new era here, turning this purple state into a place Democrats eyed as a stronghold. They won women in droves. Hispanics supported them overwhelmingly, and they easily captured a Senate seat once held by a Republican.
But now, six years after Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in front of a crowd of 80,000 in Denver and then decisively won the state’s nine electoral votes, Democrats are worried that their fortunes have dramatically turned.
Senator Mark Udall, who swept into office with Obama, is facing a tough reelection bid against Representative Cory Gardner, a Republican, in a race that could determine which party controls the US Senate.
The state’s growing Hispanic population and influx of young people have also led both parties to view the state as a political laboratory that could foreshadow the shape of American politics for years to come.
The same tensions that have made the state one of the top battlegrounds in this year’s elections exist in some form throughout the country: the battle over independent female voters, Democrats’ emphasis on reproductive rights, and Republicans’ determination to capitalize on an unpopular president and offer up more broadly appealing candidates for their own party.
“The Democratic playbook will be totally discredited if Cory Gardner wins this election, and that does have repercussions beyond Colorado and beyond 2014,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant based here. If Democrats win, despite a strong Republican candidate and a national environment that favors the GOP, it raises the question of whether Colorado has gone blue.
A sign of how quickly things have changed since Obama roared to victory in the state came on Tuesday, when Bill Clinton appeared at a rally with Udall at a suburban hotel ballroom.
The former president used the climax of his speech to highlight Obama’s lame-duck status.
“The Republicans are voting like crazy, early, because they want to pop the president one more time,” he said. “But that’ll be over in two years. Whether you support or oppose the president, he has to leave.”
Clinton’s presence here came a week after his wife and presumptive 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, made her second appearance in the state. On Wednesday, a potential Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, appeared with Gardner, underscoring the perception among the political class that this race — and this state — is serving as a proxy battlefield for the next campaign for the White House.
Gardner, after months of trailing narrowly in the polls to Udall, has opened a small but consistent lead. Strikingly, he appears to have narrowed the gap among female voters while continuing to build a lead among men, blunting the advantage Democrats have used here and throughout the country to win the presidency and maintain control of the Senate since 2007.
Democrats say the race is tight and that their voter outreach program, helped by the state’s growing Hispanic population, will put them over the top.
As of Friday morning, early turnout figures from Colorado’s first entirely mail-in election showed that Republicans had cast 104,487 more ballots than Democrats, according to the Colorado secretary of state’s office.
Even as voters are polarized, they are united in their disgust with the nasty tenor of this year’s campaigns, which have been fueled by record spending by outside groups.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Diane Canepa, a 56-year-old property renovator who was working on her tablet, beneath the colossal chandeliers at Denver’s historic train depot last week. “I dislike both of them now.”
Canepa, an unaffiliated voter, said she had already cast her vote for Udall under the state’s new mail-in ballot system. A Republican, Karen Hamilton-Smith, said her vote for Gardner was directed just as much against Udall.
“There’s been nothing of substance,” said Hamilton-Smith, a 56-year-old accountant from the town of Monument.
Nearly $90 million has been spent so far by the two campaigns and outside groups here, second only to the $103 million race in North Carolina, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which estimated last week that a total of $3.7 billion would be spent nationwide, more than ever for a nonpresidential year.
Commercial breaks during the evening news here each feature three or four dueling attack ads, mostly painting Gardner as opposed to issues of concern to women and Udall as antienergy, weak on terrorism, or a do-nothing.
Colorado is one of about 10 states, including New Hampshire, with tossup Senate races. Republicans need six additional seats to win a majority, and most analysts give the GOP an advantage.
The party leads in races for three Democratic-held seats — South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana — according to polls. And seven of the 10 tossup states are currently held by Democrats, who face the burden of differentiating themselves from a president with an approval rating of just over 40 percent. (Republicans are expected to easily hold on to their majority in the US House.)
Gardner, a 40-year-old with an enthusiastic grin, is seen as a national model for a party that has undermined its chances in recent elections with candidates who have appeared dour or made ill-advised comments.
Gardner, a fairly consistent conservative in the House who emphasizes fiscal discipline, has used inclusive language to talk about immigration and an expanded energy policy that would increase domestic production and promote efficiency.
“Gardner is quite possibly the best Senate candidate in the country, and he’s a formidable foe,” said Kristin Lynch, Udall’s press secretary, who quickly added that Gardner’s strength is his ability to “tell outrageous lies” that mask his ranking in a 2012 National Journal survey as the 10th most conservative member of the House.
Republicans nationally have focused on finding better candidates, putting more money behind mainstream politicians during primaries to avoid Tea Party insurgents who have often self-destructed in general elections.
That’s made Gardner — and most other Republicans running for the US Senate this year — much harder targets. There have been no repeats of Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican Senate candidate in 2012 who claimed that women were unlikely to become pregnant from “legitimate rape.”
Democrats have nonetheless tried to make reproductive rights a focus, pointing to Gardner’s support for a federal measure that would define life at conception and to his prior support for a similar state measure.
But even some supporters have grown weary of that attack line, which earned Udall the nickname “Senator Uterus” from detractors.
“They’ve blown that way out of proportion,” said Alice Godec, a retiree and unaffiliated voter from Golden, as she stopped by a suburban Target, surrounded by chain stores and dry mountain ranges, to buy a pumpkin last week. She said she would vote for Udall, though she was hardly cheerful about it.
“He just doesn’t do a lot,” she said.
Udall, a 64-year-old avid mountain climber who served a decade in the House before winning his Senate seat, has been an outspoken critic of government surveillance and is an environmental advocate.
His father was Morris “Mo” Udall, a liberal standard-bearer who represented Arizona in the House for 30 years and once ran for president. His cousin Tom Udall is a New Mexico senator.
Strategists on both sides say Colorado’s turn to the left has been exaggerated, even if Democrats hold a decadelong winning streak in Senate and governor’s races.
Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper is also in danger of losing his seat this year, despite an economic recovery that is outpacing the nation.
Hickenlooper and other Democrats have been hurt, in part, by backlash over gun control measures that prompted a recall of two Democratic state senators last year.
The presence of Bush — who previously recorded a Spanish-language television ad for Gardner — underscored the notion expressed by both parties that the state will be up for grabs in 2016.
At a rally held amid sawdust and empty stables on the county fair grounds in Castle Rock, Bush delivered an optimistic speech. Gardner took the stage amid fist pumps and loud music.
“Colorado has the opportunity to be the tip of the spear, the vanguard of a movement,” Gardner said.
Democrats are hoping the state’s growing Hispanic population, which helped Obama in 2008 and 2012, will instead give them the edge, both this year and in future elections.
Hispanics make up a fifth of the state’s population and about 14 percent of eligible voters. By 2040, they are expected to make up a third of the state’s population. Obama won an estimated 75 percent of Colorado’s Latino vote.
“That will be the determining factor,” said Federico Peña, a former mayor of Denver, a two-time Cabinet secretary under Clinton, and a Democrat. “Cory Gardner will not get more than 20 percent of the Latino vote. For him to win, he needs 35 percent.”
Even as he boasts, Pena calls the race a tossup.