Mark Udall Touts NSA Reform (and Dings Obama) in Bid to Save Senate Seat

Oct. 15, 2014, 11:54 a.m.

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.

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