LYONS, Colo. (AP) — Fighting for his political life, Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall marked the one-year anniversary of last year's devastating floods by visiting two battered villages northwest of Denver while his re-election campaign continued to attack his Republican challenger for backing the government shutdown after the deluge.
Udall's increasing emphasis on the flood campaign has incensed Republicans, who note that the senator's challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, represents an area that was hard hit by the disaster and worked closely with Udall and other Colorado representatives in Washington to secure emergency federal aid.
The two men even toured the disaster together in a National Guard helicopter, during which Gardner spotted people trapped by the floodwaters who were then rescued.
Nine people were killed in the flood, and a 10th died in the recovery effort. Damage was estimated by state officials at $2 billion.
"I never would have thought Mark Udall would use this terrible tragedy that affected our state and so many of our communities in such a raw, political way," Sean Conway, a Republican and county commissioner in Weld County, an area in Gardner's district hit by the floods, said in a conference call organized by the Gardner campaign Friday morning. "I thought Mark Udall was better than this."
Minutes later, as he stood by the flood-scoured bank of the St. Vrain Creek with local officials in the ravaged town of Lyons, Udall bristled at the suggestion he was taking advantage of the disaster. "I didn't politicize the floods — he politicized the floods," Udall said of Gardner.
The Democrats' case against Gardner begins long before floodwaters rose in Colorado. In early 2013, Gardner and other Colorado Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against aid to northeastern communities hit by Superstorm Sandy. Lawmakers from that area remembered the vote when Colorado's delegation had to seek emergency funding after the September 2013 deluge.
Then House Republicans shut down the federal government beginning Oct. 1. That forced the state to temporarily foot the bill for emergency response and discouraged tourists from visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, whose surrounding communities were already hard-hit by flooding.
Republicans contend it didn't slow rescue or rebuilding operations. GOP officials note that Gardner was one of a minority of House Republicans who eventually voted to re-open government after the 16-day shutdown.
Udall began his emphasis on flooding last month with an emotional television ad featuring Tara Schroedinger, mayor of the hamlet of Jamestown, which was virtually wiped out in the flooding. In the spot, Schroedinger fought back tears as she praised Udall's response. The senator's campaign then began to criticize Gardner's role.
Gardner, meanwhile, fired back, saying the attack was a low blow.
This week, Udall began airing an ad in which he personally levels the accusations against Gardner. "Just one year ago, Rep. Gardner stood with his party in Washington, voting to shut down the government, right when Colorado was recovering from historic floods," Udall says in the ad, looking directly into the camera.
On Thursday, the Colorado Democratic Party marked the anniversary of the floods by releasing a statement slamming Republicans and Gardner for the shutdown.
In Jamestown, Udall got an enthusiastic welcome Friday evening from a crowd that packed the small town hall to celebrate the community's progress since the flood. But he acknowledged he couldn't compete with the wildly popular mayor.
"I'm sure glad Mayor Schroedinger is not on the ballot running against me," he said, to laughter and applause.