DENVER -- In the final weeks of the battle over Colorado's Senate seat, the state's airwaves reached the saturation point with ads targeting abortion rights, bipartisanship and energy policy.
But one topic remained notably absent from the airwaves: hydraulic fracturing.
Although the state's booming energy industry at one point threatened to dominate the election -- in part due to a handful of ballot initiatives that demanded greater buffers between homes and drilling sites and endorsed stricter environmental protections -- the issue was publicly set aside last summer, when Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) struck a compromise deal with the initiative's financial backer, Rep. Jared Polis (D).
Democrats at the time touted the detente as a victory, eliminating an unnecessary distraction as the party aimed to re-elect Hickenlooper and keep Sen. Mark Udall (D) in office in his fight with Rep. Cory Gardner (R).
But months later, now that Udall has lost his re-election bid by 43,000 votes, one prominent Centennial State environmentalist is questioning whether that strategy may have contributed to the Democrat's loss.
"The Democratic Party vehemently told us that the initiatives had to be pulled or Mark Udall would lose and we'd lose the U.S. Senate," said Gary Wockner, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based environmentalist and one of the most vocal anti-drilling activists in the state. "Well, Mark Udall lost, and the Senate lost anyway. That's a fact."
Wockner argued that the compromise -- which spawned a task force to recommend legislative protections for Coloradans who live near existing or proposed oil and gas drilling sites -- helped to dampen enthusiasm in the election among the state's environmental voters.
"Had the activist base been more engaged, we don't know if the ballot issues would have won or lost. We don't know if Mark Udall would have won or lost. But we do know that the base was very disengaged," Wockner said.
Still, Wockner concedes that he has not done any analysis of the election turnout, and other Colorado political observers suggest keeping the initiatives on the ballot might have actually led to a worse loss by Udall, as well as driven votes against Democrats who managed to hold onto their state House majority.
The compromise over the ballot initiatives also likely contributed to a victory elsewhere in the state for Democrats, as Hickenlooper claimed re-election against former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) by a 63,000-vote margin.
Alan Salazar, who previously served as Udall's chief of staff and now serves as Hickenlooper's chief strategy officer, said the negotiations helped the governor claim crossover voters in a tight election year.
"The drama that played out over the summer around these ballot initiatives and the impact that these might have had on the industry and on fracking and on the whole controversy in Colorado gave the governor an opportunity to showcase his diplomatic skills," Salazar told E&E Daily.
That opportunity came at a time when Hickenlooper faced criticisms over his support for new firearms regulations in the state, Salazar added, noting that Hickenlooper was being questioned at the time over whether "he might not be decisive enough or effective enough."
"It touched right at the bull's-eye of what people are concerned about here, which is the economic recovery and the environment," Salazar said.
But Udall failed to draw the same sort of boost from the compromise agreement, Salazar said, even after the Democratic lawmaker spoke publicly against the measures in July.
"I think it was a brave thing for Mark to have done. The industry probably didn't acknowledge that moment as much as they could have and should have, because it was a very important moment when Sen. Udall came out against Congressman Polis' initiatives," Salazar said.
While Gardner hit Udall for months over the ballot initiatives -- asserting that Udall would back an "energy ban," even though none of the ballot measures would have barred energy development outright -- the senator declined to take a position on the proposals. A few weeks before the compromise was announced, Udall said he supported a legislative compromise but would look at the initiatives if the measures made the ballot (E&E Daily, June 2).
But as the compromise appeared on the brink, Salazar said that Udall stood against his Democratic House colleague.
Nonetheless, Udall failed to claim a boost from the compromise. Most likely that happened for the same reason that Hickenlooper avoided being linked to criticism of the Obama administration as he fought for his own re-election bid: the line between state and federal politics.
"I think it should have helped Sen. Udall more than it did, and I think the only reason it didn't is the senator didn't occupy the same space as a sitting governor does in those situations," Salazar said.
David Winkler, director of research at the Denver-based Project New America, echoed that sentiment, pointing to exit polls that show Hickenlooper performed better with Republican and independent votes than Udall.
"It's harder in the election terms for Udall to distance himself from national issues ... and there was a lot of anger at Washington this election on both sides, whereas in the governor's race, Hickenlooper could run on his record," Winkler said, pointing to data that shows about 50,000 voters in the state likely split their ballot between Hickenlooper and Gardner or a third-party candidate.
Moreover, while both Senate candidates campaigned on energy policy -- Gardner, in particular, emphasized his support for wind energy as an example of how he would serve as a "new kind of Republican" -- Winkler noted that compromise over the ballot measures, settled long before many voters begin to even consider the election, likely had little impact on the Senate race.
"The ballot measures didn't play a huge role in the actual context of this election because they weren't on the ballot," Winkler said.
But Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith argued that the election's focus on energy policy issues overall -- he pointed to the plethora of television and radio ads in the Senate race that highlighted or criticized both candidates -- helped to generate a dramatic increase among younger voters from the 2010 midterm election.
"One thing we learned again: You can't be an opponent of the environment and win statewide in Colorado. You either have to be pro-environment or at least pretend to be pro-environment," Maysmith said. "Bob Beauprez flunked that test, and it hurt him. Cory Gardner passed that test, and it helped him."
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