WASHINGTON -- He wasn't vocal about promoting his work on civil liberties and intelligence. But over time, astute national security wonks learned to watch him.
His statements sometimes seemed abstract, but were often signposts pointing to something deeper. He wrote letters, he asked questions and he left hints on the public record signaling major intelligence community abuses. Many times, it was his clues that helped shake those stories loose.
But in January, Colorado's Mark Udall (D) will pack up his Hart Senate Building office -- located just a few floors above the headquarters of the Intelligence Committee, where he made himself a thorn in the side of the nation’s clandestine leaders -- and return to Boulder, depriving the critical task of intelligence oversight of one of its most viable leaders.
On Tuesday, Udall was defeated 50 percent to 45 percent by Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner. Gardner, a two-term congressman, announced in May that he would make a run at Udall's seat, throwing a previously comfortable Democrat into the race of his political life. Gardner's aggressive, media-savvy campaign, combined with his marketing as a new kind of Republican, made a nail-biter out of a race that wasn't supposed to be much of a contest in the first place, and ultimately scored Republicans one more seat towards a Senate majority.
With Udall's departure, civil liberties organizations are losing one of their most critical allies on Capitol Hill. Udall has consistently broken with his own party leadership to criticize a number of the Obama administration's national security policies as well as the tactics of the White House’s leading spy agencies.
Rather than toeing the party line on intelligence issues, Udall instead found a comfortable home in a bipartisan group of lawmakers -- commonly called the “Checks and Balances” caucus -- who fought civil liberties infringements and championed greater government transparency.
But the Democrat's willingness to split from party leaders on national security and privacy was not enough to overcome Gardner’s consistent, calculated attacks tying Udall to the Obama administration on issues like health care and the economy. With national security largely absent from the campaign, Udall had a difficult time defending himself against the charge that he has frequently voted with President Barack Obama, whose unpopularity hurt a number of Democrats this election cycle.
Udall’s role as one of the Hill’s chief intelligence critics was heralded by supportive colleagues and chastised by intelligence defenders, many of them members of his own party. Along with fellow Intelligence Committee colleagues Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Udall played a key role in uncovering this year’s revelation that the CIA had spied on Congress, a feud that panel chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) desperately wanted to keep under wraps.
Some advocates say that Udall was able to become a key proponent of civil liberties largely because of unspoken Senate rules that allow lawmakers to carve out specific issues for themselves.
“That has a lot to do with courtesy and deference toward another senator who has made something a 'signature issue' … If an issue is being vocally and energetically addressed by a colleague, senators tend to move on to other issues where that is not true,” said Steven Rickard of the Open Society Foundation.
“There are a lot of Democrats –- and some independents and Republicans -– who care a lot about these issues,” he said, referring to civil liberties, intelligence and national security. Someone, Rickard predicted, will eventually pick up Udall’s torch.
But it's not likely to be Gardner.
The Senate rookie isn’t expected to inherit Udall’s spot on the Senate’s intelligence panel. Beyond that, Gardner hasn't amassed a substantial record on civil liberties and national security issues in the House.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has clearly aligned itself with Udall on many of the senator's civil liberties battles, rates Gardner at a dismal 7 percent, in contrast to Udall’s 100.
Gardner has voted consistently to extend certain provisions of the Patriot Act. He voted in 2012 to extend provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which ultimately gave way to the massive data collection programs that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed last year.
To his credit, Gardner did vote for a bipartisan amendment that would have ended the NSA's bulk collection programs. The amendment, which was introduced in the months following Snowden’s revelations, is commonly referred to as the “Amash Amendment" after its chief sponsor, the libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.). The measure was defeated by a narrow 217-205 margin.
That vote, which a number of Republicans voted for, is arguably the highlight of Gardner’s civil liberties track record.
Gardner’s House site has very little to say about national security and civil liberties. The page dedicated to those issues focuses narrowly on military engagement and U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and appears to be outdated.
His campaign website has even less to say on the topic, instead focusing on his reputation as a leader on energy and a leading opponent of Obamacare, which will no doubt be his focus once he fills Udall’s Senate seat.
No one quite knows what's next for Udall, who is a career politician. But there's no doubt that his imminent absence from the Intelligence Committee, along with Gardner's pending entrance into the Senate, has the White House and its favorite spy agencies breathing a little easier -- for now.