FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Maybe Democratic Sen. Mark Udall was a little nervous introducing first lady Michelle Obama. Udall, trailing Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner with less than two weeks before Election Day, was glad to have the more popular of the Obamas visit Colorado to campaign for him. And the almost unanimously Democratic crowd at the Lory Student Center on the campus of Colorado State University was glad to see them both.
Udall delivered an abbreviated version of his campaign pitch, urging the crowd to vote early and reminding them that Colorado law allows voters to register on Election Day itself. No problems there. But then it came time to introduce the First lady. "In 2008 and 2012, we showed that Dr. Martin Luther King had it right," Udall began, "which is that in America, at our best, we judge people by the content of their color -- "
Oops. In a millisecond, both Udall and the crowd sensed that he had gotten those famous words terribly wrong. "The content of their character," Udall quickly corrected, as the audience began simultaneously to laugh, groan, and cheer. "Not the color of their skin." Udall acknowledged that he had messed up and then repeated, a little haltingly, just to make sure he had it right: "We judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin."
It was a slightly jarring moment, but the day wasn't about gaffes. It was about women, from the first lady on down. More than any other Senate race in the country, the Colorado contest has focused on women — mostly because Udall has devoted an extraordinary amount of time to accusing Gardner of scheming to limit or ban women's access to abortion and contraception, pay them less than men, and in general relegate half of Colorado's population to second-class citizenship. In a now-famous editorial endorsing Gardner, the Denver Post called Udall's effort an "obnoxious one-issue campaign."
But that is the campaign Udall has chosen to run. Thursday's rally at the Lory Center, however, left another impression that Udall has not chosen to highlight: Colorado Democrats talk a lot about women, but they don't actually support many female candidates when it comes to running for statewide office.
The event's early speakers were dominated by influential women and coded references to abortion and contraception. Things began with a video of Sen. Elizabeth Warren paying tribute to Udall. Then came a video of Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, telling the crowd that Gardner "wants to take away women's rights." The video continued with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, who noted that "a woman should be able to make her own medical decisions with her doctor." Campaign organizer Katherine Tinker took the microphone to call for "leaders who actually respect a woman's right to make her own healthcare decisions."
But then came a woman named Betsy Markey, who reminded the crowd that she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2008 but lost the next time around, in 2010, to a Tea Party Republican named Cory Gardner. Markey is now running for state treasurer, and, almost as an aside, told the crowd, "I am also the only Democratic woman running statewide."
It's true. Despite all the women on the stage, and all the talk about women's rights, when it comes to actually running women for statewide office, Colorado Democrats have fallen a little short. There are six statewide offices on the ballot in this election — governor, lieutenant governor, senator, secretary of state, attorney general, and treasurer — and in five of those races the Democratic candidates are men, Markey being the lone exception.
In addition, of the seven Democratic candidates for U.S. House seats from Colorado, six are men. (Incumbent Rep. Diana DeGette is the exception there.) In this intense election season, Democrats have filled the airwaves with soundbites from women and discussion of so-called women's issues. But the Democrats on the ballot are almost all men.
Whatever the party's record, the events on stage showed the emotional power some social issues have on Democrats in this purple/blue state. In his remarks, Udall slammed Gardner's "radical agenda, which would move us backwards" and proposed six measures he said would move Colorado forward. The audience's reaction to Udall's list served as an audible ranking of where each issue stood in their hearts.
The first thing Udall mentioned was raising the minimum wage. The crowd applauded. The next item was "respecting women's reproductive freedoms." At that, the audience really applauded; the approval was louder and more intense. Then came "equal pay for equal work," which received a reaction almost as favorable as "reproductive freedoms." After that came "responding to the opportunity that climate change presents," which was well received but without the intensity of abortion. And then came "marriage equality," and the cheering was almost deafening. (Udall's final issue was "college affordability," which was enthusiastically received, but then again, it's the easiest applause line on any college campus.)
No matter what the Denver Post and other critics say, Udall's campaign is about women because Democratic strategists believe a particular set of "women's issues" can create the emotional intensity to motivate the party's base voters to go to the polls, and to frighten less committed voters into casting a ballot against Gardner.
All of that was clear well before the first lady said a word. Her remarks were notable mostly for their frequent and glowing references to "Barack," which showed definitively that there is at least one Democrat in the 2014 contests who is not distancing herself from the president.
The overall message of the day was that Mark Udall and Colorado's Democrats really, really, really support women, especially when it comes to their right to make their own health care decisions. As far as a Colorado Democratic woman's right to run for statewide and congressional office — well, that's another issue. With men filling the party's slate for governor, lieutenant governor, senator, attorney general, secretary of state, and for the House of Representatives from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Districts of Colorado — it appears the Colorado Democratic Party's devotion to moving forward goes only so far.