Mark Udall is a climber. The House Democrat from Colorado has scaled each of the state's "Fourteeners," the 54 majestic peaks that soar at least 14,000 feet. He's had his passport stamped in Nepal nine times, and although he failed to conquer Everest, he reached the pinnacle of the 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga, the third-tallest mountain on Earth.
Today, the lanky, 58-year-old lawmaker is attempting a new and challenging ascent—running for the U.S. Senate after nearly 10 years in the House. If he and two other men in Senate contests prevail on November 4, history books will be rewritten. The three of them are cousins, and their being elected would be a first for the world's most exclusive club.
Handicappers give Udall a slight edge in the Colorado race—or call it a tossup. To the south, in neighboring New Mexico, his first cousin and fellow Democrat Tom Udall, 60, is favored to win the seat. Both states are hard-fought turf at the presidential level. To the northwest in Oregon, the Udalls' second cousin, incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith, 56, is battling prevailing Democratic winds, but many think he'll stay on as the sole surviving Republican senator on the West Coast.
The cousins were born to a political dynasty rooted in the rugged terrain of the American West, each of them the son of a man who served in Washington. America, it's safe to say, has had a 232-year fascination with such families, from the Adamses to the Harrisons to the Kennedys to the Bushes, to name some. But historians point out that there have been only 10 known pairs of cousins who landed in the Senate, the last being Delaware's Henry and Thomas du Pont at the start of the last century. The du Ponts, though, like all but two of the pairs, did not serve simultaneously, according to the Senate Historical Office.
A famous political forebear, living or dead, certainly may help on Election Day, but a relative with lots of ink in Who's Who doesn't guarantee victory. Tom Udall can attest to that, since he faltered twice in House races before winning in 1998, the same year as Mark Udall.
Tom and Mark Udall are bound by more than bloodlines. These political allies, both liberals, are boyhood friends, climbing partners, graduates of Outward Bound, and environmentalists. Mark, who lives outside Boulder in Eldorado Springs, for years taught Outward Bound courses in Colorado. He was its statewide executive director for 10 years after that. Tom, who once scaled Mount McKinley, followed a more traditional path to Congress, serving first as an assistant federal prosecutor in New Mexico and, later, as the state's attorney general. Today the pair compares notes every day, if only by phone or E-mail. Sit down with them and get them talking, and they revert to calling the other by their nicknames: Marcus and Tomás. They tend to finish each other's sentences, sometimes with a laugh line.
In the genes. Asked about the Udall dynasty—a term the two scions dislike, thinking it suggestive of kings—Mark insists they are outliers in the current generation of Udalls for having pursued elected office, since most went into business or education. "Our brothers and sisters and cousins," Tom deadpans, "think we got the defective gene."
Their fathers, though, were plainly famous politicians, beginning in Arizona, where this storied Mormon family first made its name. Mark's dad is the late Morris "Mo" Udall, who held on to a House seat from Arizona for 30 years and made a serious bid for the White House in 1976. Before entering Congress, Mo was an Army officer, a pro basketball player (briefly), and a lawyer, all despite having lost an eye in childhood. He's chiefly remembered as an environmentalist whose achievements included designating millions of acres of federal land as wilderness. His wit was wicked. Once, he pointed out the difference between a political caucus and a cactus, observing that the plant has its pricks on the outside. He went on to pen a book, Too Funny to Be President.
Mo's brother—Tom's dad—is Stewart Udall, 88, who likewise was a forerunner in the conservation movement. Stewart spent six years in the House before he was tapped to run the Interior Department by President Kennedy. He stayed on through the Johnson administration. A lawyer, poet, and author, Stewart now is Tom's next-door neighbor in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains fringing Santa Fe, N.M.