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GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo. - Republican Rep. Cory Gardner on Tuesday defeated first-term Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in one of the priciest U.S. Senate races in the nation.
The race had national implications both because it helped tip the U.S. Senate to Republican control and because it showed the GOP can win in diverse, fast-growing states like Colorado that have rejected it for much of the Obama administration.
"It is time for a new direction, it is time for a new way forward," Gardner said in his acceptance speech.
Republicans had not won a top-of-the-ticket race in Colorado since 2004, but the news that the two-term congressman from the rural eastern slice of the state had ousted Udall, a member of an iconic western political family, spread elation across GOP ranks.
"Republicans across the state are celebrating for the first time on election night for a long time," said GOP consultant Katy Atkinson. Gardner, she added, "is a personable, likable, charming guy and negatives couldn't stick to him."
"I thought about the story of when Abe Lincoln stubbed his toe," Udall said. "'It hurts too much to laugh but he's too big to cry.'"
Udall certainly tried, hammering Gardner for months on his past support for measures that would grant legal rights to fertilized eggs, outlaw abortion and possibly some forms of birth control. After Gardner jumped into the race in late February, he quickly disavowed one of those proposals and then suggested allowing birth control pills to be bought over-the-counter.
In his concession speech, Udall said, "I want to say that I really want to thank the people of Colorado for loaning me their power to serve as their Senator for the last six years."
A relentlessly on-message politician, Gardner repeatedly tied Udall to President Barack Obama. Gardner's campaign also called him "a new kind of Republican," and the images it issued made him seem more like a Democrat -- standing in front of a wind farm, walking through a mountain forest. It also played up his relative youth -- Gardner is 40 years old — to Udall's 64 years of age and 16 years in Washington, D.C.
"Tonight, you shook up the Senate," Gardner said before his cheering supporters. "Your message was heard from Nevada to Pennsylvania Avenue."
Even some Democrats began privately grumbling about the Udall campaign's relentless focus on reproductive rights in the race's final weeks. But the campaign was employing a tactic that has helped Democrats stay in power in Colorado over the past decade: Use social issues to paint Republicans as too extreme, especially to the abortion rights-supporting suburban women who usually decide Colorado elections.
"As Republicans in Colorado, we've gotten use to the saying, 'Just wait until the next election,'" Gardner told his supporters. "Well I've got news for you: that next election, it finally happened."
That's how Sen. Michael Bennet won re-election in 2010 against Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, and with Bennet chairing the Democratic group that helps Senate candidates, it became the prototype for the party's campaigns across the country. In an irony, Buck on Tuesday won Gardner's old congressional seat.
"Tomorrow, we go to fix a Washington that is out of step, out of touch, and out of time," Gardner said. "Tonight, we commit ourselves to building a government we can be proud of again."
Voters Tuesday were citing party loyalty in their choices in the race.
Michael Laughlin, 58, of Denver said he voted for Udall in hopes Democrats will keep control on the Senate.
"My biggest hope is that we don't do more damage than we've already done," he said. "A Republican Senate could turn back the hands of time in a number of different areas," such as civil rights and the economy.
Julie English said she voted for Gardner in hopes of steering the country to the right.
"It's gone far to the left," said English, 54, who lives in the Denver suburb of Arvada. "Under this administration, it's totally going the opposite of what this country is founded on."
She said Obama has mishandled key issues, including the Ebola outbreak and illegal immigration.
Strategists on both sides were well aware of the symbolic heft of the race. "Colorado is either going to be the model of how to defeat the (Democratic) blueprint or the model of why it's so effective," Kelly Maher, a Denver GOP operative, said before the vote.