Sen. Mark Udall is reminding Colorado voters that he opposes the government’s mass spy apparatus, and that he’s willing to take on President Obama as he endeavors to pull it back.
In a new TV spot released online Tuesday, the Colorado Democrat relies on his privacy bona fides to distance himself from an unpopular president and appeal to the state’s libertarian sympathies. “Mass collection of our phone and Internet records started under a Republican president, continued under a Democratic one. I won’t tolerate it,” Udall booms in the ad. “As Coloradans, our rights include the freedom to be left alone.”
The spot also highlights Udall’s call for the resignation of CIA Director John Brennan, an Obama friend, following revelations that the agency spied on Senate staffers conducting a review of Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” practices.
It’s a new strategy for the incumbent Democrat, who finds himself trailing Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in late-stage election polls—a twist for Udall after the Democrat spent most of the campaign clinging to a narrow lead. During that time, Udall has focused on women’s rights, particularly surrounding access to birth control and Gardner’s conservative stance on abortion rights.
The gender strategy has worked for Udall and other Colorado Democrats in the past, and a new CNN poll shows Udall leading among women by 9 percent. But Udall has lost ground among male voters, who favor Gardner by a 20-point margin, according to the poll. Gardner led Udall 50 to 46 percent overall in the survey of 665 likely voters, conducted from Oct. 9 to Oct 13 with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Udall’s new ad—simply dubbed “Freedom”—is also a rebuttal to the Denver Post‘s endorsement last week of Gardner. Calling Udall a “fine man with good intentions,” the Post ultimately condemned Udall, saying “he is not perceived as a leader in Washington.”
Udall has highlighted his record as a digital-privacy hawk in earlier ads. Yet pinning part of his campaign’s closing argument on the need to reform the government’s intelligence agencies stands out in a midterm cycle where few candidates from either party have made it much of a campaign issue.
Despite Edward Snowden’s leaks last year exposing the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance programs and a prolonged, unresolved policy debate that followed, surveillance reform remains a niche topic, with voters listing jobs, the economy, and the threat of ISIS as their top concerns.
“The issue comes up often and is a standard part of Mark’s speeches on the campaign trail,” a Udall spokesman said in a statement. “Mark firmly believes that at the heart of freedom is the freedom to be left alone. He has a long record he can point to and Coloradans support his hard work.”
Whether Udall’s hard-line stance on NSA reform will resonate with voters is unclear. But a Udall defeat would be seen as a setback by many NSA-reform activists, who are still clamoring for major reform nearly a year after Obama pledged to rein in the agency’s surveillance practices.
Along with fellow anti-surveillance hard-liner Sen. Ron Wyden, Udall tried for years to convince government officials to declassify the NSA’s secret bulk collection of Americans’ phone metadata, long before the Snowden leaks surfaced. (Some NSA-reform advocates have attacked Udall and Wyden for not doing more.)
Udall’s departure from the upper chamber would leave Wyden mostly alone in pushing for reforms that go beyond Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy’s USA Freedom Act, the surveillance legislation that stands the best chance of getting to the president’s desk. The bill would effectively end the government’s bulk collection of phone metadata—the numbers and time stamps of calls, but not their actual content.
But Wyden and Udall have not joined on as cosponsors. The pair hopes to strengthen the bill to require warrants for so-called backdoor searches of Americans’ Internet data that can be “incidentally” collected during foreign-surveillance hauls.
Andrea Drusch contributed.