As GOP nominees struggle in linchpin states, moderate Joe O’Dea is hoping to eke out a surprise win in purple Colorado.
For months, top party operatives have mused that Joe O’Dea is the best Republican candidate running for Senate this year.
While other GOP nominees are countering reports that they have encouraged abortions, killed puppies or waffled on the 2020 election being legitimate, O’Dea has been talking non-stop about soaring inflation.
The moderate Colorado Republican Senate nominee has never led a public poll in the race, and polling averages show O’Dea continues to trail his opponent, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, by 8 percentage points. But Bennet’s approval ratings are in line with President Joe Biden’s, in the low 40s, and both parties see the potential for a surprise.
So, in the final weeks of the 2022 midterm campaign, with the GOP’s pickup prospects fading in states like Arizona and Georgia, national Republicans are looking for backup opportunities and holding out hope that O’Dea can eke out an upset in a state that’s on the bluer side of purple.
With the Senate locked in at 50-50, Republicans need to gain just one seat to tip the chamber’s balance in their favor. But neither party currently has the upper hand as Election Day nears, and key races in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Georgia remain too close to call.
Now, both sides are putting irons in the fire in Colorado, where mail-in voting begins this week.
Senate Republicans’ top super PAC moved $1.25 million into the state just over a week ago, as outside Democratic groups in the last month have steered more than $9 million to the Colorado race.
It’s one sign they aren’t willing to take any chances on Bennet’s ability to hold the seat for Democrats. Another was that President Joe Biden traveled to Colorado last week to tout a Bennet project.
To pull off a victory in Colorado, Republicans will not only have to turn out their waning base, but win over unaffiliated voters who have heavily favored Democrats in the years since former President Donald Trump took office. And even though O’Dea has maintained that the 2020 election was legitimate, he’s working to prevent Democrats from linking him to the GOP’s more extreme wing.
“Colorado is a tough state, Bennet has been outspending Joe O’Dea, and frankly, there’s this lingering stench of stolen election conspiracy crap that has pulled the party down overall,” said Dick Wadhams, former chair of the Colorado Republican Party.
“Bennet has not put this away,” Wadhams continued. “He’s had this huge spending edge, and yet he has to beg and plead for the president to come out here to do something that Bennet could not get done in the Senate.”
During his visit, Biden used his executive powers to designate a World War II military training camp as a national monument, a project Bennet has pursued through legislation since taking office in 2011.
Steven Law, president of the GOP’s Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, recently placed Colorado in the same category as two of Republicans’ other tough-but-possible pickup opportunities this year.
“There’s some potential in places like New Hampshire, Colorado, maybe Arizona,” Law said on an Oct. 4 episode of the conservative political podcast “Ruthless.” Three days after the episode aired, SLF put $1.25 million into the Colorado race. The amount is far less than the super PAC is spending in other states, though a spokesman said the group is continuing to watch Colorado.
The recent SLF funds, which the group contributed to a pro-O’Dea super PAC in Colorado rather than creating its own ads, have gone toward a new $1.6 million, two-week ad buy in Denver starting Tuesday.
On the day last week when Bennet appeared with Biden at an event south of Vail, O’Dea attended a Denver Chamber of Commerce candidate forum. The split-screen of activities that day was emblematic of the candidates’ strategies.
The two-term senator is campaigning on Democratic accomplishments and the party’s ability to pass major legislation since taking control of Washington. It’s a tactic that differs from other endangered Democrats, who are avoiding the president and have declared in ads that they aren’t beholden to the party.
Bennet can come across as cerebral: At the business forum, he opened his pre-recorded remarks with thoughts on democracy. By contrast, O’Dea appeared in person and emphasized the practical. He noted that he has run his own construction company for 35 years; “It’s called business acumen,” he said.
O’Dea takes pains to signal that he will be independent of his party, describing himself as a “Republican Joe Manchin.”
“They’re not going to know where Joe O’Dea’s at,” O’Dea told the Chamber crowd. “I’ll buck the party. If McConnell wants my vote, we’re going to get good things done for Colorado. I’ll sit there and I’ll just wait him out. I don’t care.”
O’Dea made a similar pitch to a room full of donors the night before, while acknowledging he needs all the support he can get if he is going to catch up with Bennet. Mail-in ballots, which are provided to every voter in the state, begin distribution this week.
“Some of the polling you guys have seen, it’s kind of a crapshoot,” O’Dea said to 50 supporters at the fundraiser in Golden last week, referencing public surveys about the race.
Former Sen. Gary Hart, a Democrat, is supporting Bennet and said he believes he’ll win, but credited O’Dea for the strategy he’s taking in the race.
“Speaking objectively, I think he’s presenting himself about the way he should,” Hart said. “He’s punching all the right buttons in terms of his TV ads — riding horses and having his daughter campaign for him on TV, all those fundamental, smart politics.
“The candidates are two decent, two honest people, not attention-getting. So it’s awfully hard to dislike either one of them.”
Josh Holmes, a political consultant who advises Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, recalls meeting O’Dea before his primary victory and sensing something “special” about his pitch: “I think pretty quickly, Democrats came on to the same idea we did, which is likely why they spent money in the primary trying to defeat him.”
Democratic groups spent millions of dollars trying to sink O’Dea’s primary bid, hoping to propel a much more conservative Republican to the nomination.
In an interview at Spanky’s Roadhouse in Denver, sipping a Michelob Ultra he poured into a glass of ice, O’Dea elaborated on the kind of Republican senator he would be. He praised GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski for trying to codify abortion rights up to roughly 24 weeks of pregnancy, a bill O’Dea said he is eager to help get passed if he’s elected. Sen. Mitt Romney “steps out every once in a while” to do what’s right, O’Dea said, adding that Sen. John Cornyn should be lauded for leading bipartisan talks on a gun control bill this year.
O’Dea said he would have been a no on convicting former President Donald Trump of impeachment — as he would be on any future GOP effort to impeach Biden. As for who he’d like to see win the White House in 2024, O’Dea rattled off several names for a future party leader: Tim Scott, Mike Pompeo, Tom Cotton or Nikki Haley, before adding that Ron DeSantis has done a good job as Florida governor.
Democrats have zeroed in on abortion as O’Dea’s largest vulnerability. Despite wanting protections for abortion rights, O’Dea said he doesn’t regret signing a petition in 2020 in support of a 22-week abortion ban, which failed on the ballot that year and did not include exceptions for rape and incest.
“I don’t believe in late-term abortion on command,” O’Dea said in the interview. “I just don’t.”
O’Dea maintains he is in favor of abortion access up to five months of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the woman.
Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Colorado pollster who now directs the University of Denver’s polling program, said political observers in the state entered the election believing there was a chance the Senate seat could flip.
Ciruli said there’s no question inflation is voters’ No. 1 concern, and that Biden isn’t particularly popular there. And he doesn’t doubt that polling this year — Colorado no exception — is missing the full extent of the populist vote. All the same, disenchantment with national Democrats doesn’t seem to be ushering in a red wave in Colorado, he said.
“We could be surprised on the 8th, but at the moment with where the polls are, there’s this sense that (independent voters) just may not be available to the Republicans” this year in Colorado, Ciruli said.
Republicans last won a Senate seat in Colorado in 2014, when Cory Gardner — propelled by voter dissatisfaction with Barack Obama — ousted Democratic Sen. Mark Udall by 2 percentage points. Udall’s loss was also attributed to his heavy focus on abortion rights over other issues during in the campaign.
But public polling that fall showed a tight race, with Gardner and Udall trading off the lead and remaining within a few points of each other. The neck-and-neck 2014 contest appeared much more competitive in the months leading up to the November election than polling in the current Colorado Senate race.
Gardner lost reelection in 2020, defeated by former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. O’Dea argues that a similar referendum on the party in power will help him this time.
“Senator Gardner — who I really like and have a lot of respect for — John Hickenlooper was able to tag him with voting with President Trump 100 percent of the time,” O’Dea said. “Michael Bennett has been voting with Joe Biden 98 percent of the time.”
Bennet’s campaign said Biden’s visit to the state last week had nothing to do with the senator’s reelection bid. In a written statement, his spokesperson said Bennet “stands up to his party when it’s right for Colorado,” citing Bennet’s opposition earlier this year to a federal initiative that would harm the solar panel industry.
Laura Chapin, an abortion rights advocate in Colorado who has a T-shirt that reads “Udall was right,” said voters now realize the stakes. Senate Republicans this fall introduced a 15-week abortion ban, which currently doesn’t have the votes to advance.
“O’Dea’s messaging is the poll-tested stuff that worked before Dobbs,” Chapin said. “And then Dobbs came in and fundamentally blew everybody’s plans straight through. The hypothetical became real.”
Colorado, the first state to decriminalize abortion in 1967, is one of only a handful of states without term restrictions.
In Leadville, the closest mountain town south of where Biden appeared with Bennet on Wednesday, Brandon Babish said what used to cost him $200 a week in groceries for a family of three is now $350. He’s feeling the price at the gas pump when he fills up his SUV, the type of car he needs during winter.
“I believe it’s at an all-time high, and Biden doesn’t know what he’s doing to change it,” Babish, who works as a chef at a local restaurant, said of consumer costs.
But based on what he’s heard from television advertisements, Babish described O’Dea as an anti-choice extremist who doesn’t want women to have access to abortions if they’re raped.
“I think Bennet is probably the better choice than Joe,” said Babish, whose attitude on the race is likely similar to many other independents who are dissatisfied with the state of the country but have not found Bennet to be particularly problematic.
O’Dea hasn’t come close to matching what Democrats have spent on television attacking him on abortion. Bennet, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a super PAC have spent a combined $1.6 million on television ads portraying O’Dea as a candidate opposed to abortion rights. In contrast, O’Dea’s campaign spent just $108,000 on television ads telling voters he supports a woman’s right to an abortion up to five months into pregnancy, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact.
The O’Dea campaign has paid for other outreach to educate voters on his abortion position — one that’s more liberal than any other GOP Senate candidate this year — including text messages to female swing voters and Google search results.
Swing voters may not be O’Dea’s only problem, however. He’ll need Colorado conservatives to rally behind him, too.
In at least one critical part of the state for the GOP, the local Republican Party is in shambles. In El Paso County, an area O’Dea will need to win with high margins to offset Bennet’s numbers elsewhere, some local Republican leaders are encouraging voters to leave races blank on their ballots rather than support candidates they don’t believe are sufficiently conservative. O’Dea’s primary opponent Ron Hanks, who ran much further to the right but captured 46 percent of the GOP vote, has endorsed the libertarian candidate in the Senate race.
Alan Salazar, a veteran of Colorado Democratic campaigns who currently serves as the Denver mayor’s chief of staff, said he imagines the final results could be closer than expected if Republicans close out the race in a strong way. But Bennet has been taking the race seriously, Salazar said.
“You never take it for granted,” Salazar said. “My sense is if we get the vote out, Michael will be reelected, but he’ll have to work at it.”