The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mark Udall has been dubbed ‘Mark Uterus’ on the campaign trail. That’s a problem.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) makes a point during a debate against Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner (Colo.) at the Denver Post on Oct. 7. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has talked about contraception and abortion more than just about any other 2014 candidate. Roughly half of his ads are about women's issues.  The focus has been so intense that Udall has been nicknamed "Mark Uterus," with local reporter Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post joking that if the race were a movie, it would be set in a gynecologist's office. In a debate between Udall and Rep. Cory Gardner last week, Bartels, who moderated, used the moniker to describe him.

For all of that focus — and the insistence from Democrats that Gardner's record on women's issues was the key to Udall's reelection — the incumbent has watched the race slipping from his grasp in recent weeks, an erosion that many strategists believe speaks to the limits of the  "war on women" strategy.

Sure, the "war on women" approach paid huge dividends in 2012, but it worked partly (largely?) because GOP candidates made insensitive and tone-deaf comments about rape and abortion.  But if you look at this chart detailing issues of importance to voters heading into the Nov. 4 election, abortion and birth control just aren't hot-button issues. At all. Voters view those issues with about as much urgency as climate change, which is to say with not much urgency at all.

For Udall, whose lead among women appears to be dwindling, a far better issue would have been equal pay for women, which Democrats have an edge on and is seen as very important to midterm voters.  Most Democrats have shifted from talking about women and reproductive health, to focusing on women and their paychecks.  Notice that few candidates are talking about the Hobby Lobby decision, for instance, even though it seemed as if Democrats were poised to run on it. The women/economy tactic has worked well for North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, and, to a certain extent, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky as well.

By becoming a single-issue candidate, Udall has made a big bet on Gardner's inability to prove he is less extreme than the incumbent says he is. But Gardner has backed off his support for a personhood bill that was on the statewide ballot in 2010 and came out in favor of over-the-counter contraception, too.

Udall wants to replay the 2010 campaign in Colorado when abortion and contraception was more of an issue for voters — and for suburban women in the Denver suburbs, in particular — and helped Michael Bennet eke out a win. And in 2012, it helped that voters were more apt to believe that Republicans actually wanted to take away access to abortion and contraception.

Todd Akin just hasn't shown up for Democrats, and try as he might, Udall can't turn Gardner into him.