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A Trump-weary Republican angles for an upset in Colorado Senate race

Democrats reinforced Joe O'Dea's moderate credentials while trying to boost a right-wing election denier in the primary. Now he poses a threat to Sen. Michael Bennet this fall.
Joe O'Dea, a construction company CEO and first-time candidate for office, celebrates the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate over state Rep. Ron Hanks at Mile High Station in Denver on June 28, 2022.
Joe O'Dea, a construction company CEO and first-time candidate for office, celebrates winning the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate over state Rep. Ron Hanks at Mile High Station in Denver on June 28.Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post via Getty Images file

Democrats eager to engineer an easier re-election for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., spent millions of dollars during the Republican primary to brand Joe O’Dea as a Joe Biden-loving liberal while establishing the far-right candidate as the unquestionable conservative.

The strategy failed. Come November, it could backfire completely.

O’Dea won the GOP nomination and continues to present himself as a moderate, an image that meddling Democrats helped enhance in a state that has become increasingly difficult for Republicans. As GOP candidates struggle in battlegrounds like Georgia and Pennsylvania, O’Dea is stirring talk of an upset in Colorado. Cook Political Report last week shifted its rating of the Senate race from “likely Democratic” to “lean Democratic.”

Now Democrats are scrambling to redefine O’Dea, a political novice who rose from carpenter to construction company CEO, as unreasonable and extreme — an extension of former President Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement. They also dismiss O’Dea’s vocal support for abortion rights early in pregnancies, a stance that has been a calling card for his campaign.

“I think it did backfire on them,” O’Dea said in an interview with NBC News this week, referring to Democrats' involvement in the GOP contest. “I started out as a moderate during the primary. That’s where they framed me. I was pro-abortion. Now all of a sudden I’m not pro-abortion. I’m MAGA man. I mean, it’s all over the place.”

Independent polling has been scarce in Colorado. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent some money on TV ads there since the primary, an indication that GOP leaders see potential in the race. Bennet, who briefly was a candidate for president in 2020, won his 2016 re-election by a 5-point margin. In a midterm election cycle that could be especially brutal for President Joe Biden’s party, Democrats like Bennet could be vulnerable.

“O’Dea clearly has Bennet and national Democrats running scared,” NRSC spokesperson Chris Hartline said.

The GOP primary meddling came mainly from Democratic Colorado, a group that according to Federal Election Commission records was bankrolled by Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. 

The group’s ads contrasted the moderate O’Dea with state Rep. Ron Hanks, a 2020 election denier who had acknowledged being at the rally that preceded the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. O’Dea, though he has said he voted Trump in 2016 and 2020, has also said that Biden won legitimately and that he hopes Trump doesn’t run again in 2024. 

Other anti-O’Dea messaging during the primary was harder to trace, including a direct mail attack that labeled him as “pro-abortion” but did not disclose who paid for the advertisement. O’Dea links to a copy of the mailer on his website and has blamed Democrats.

Bennet has said he had nothing to do with the ads. Some Colorado political veterans believe the tactics only helped O’Dea by encouraging unaffiliated voters to cast a Republican ballot for him. Wooing those voters back could be tough.

“It’s too cute by half,” said Ted Trimpa, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. There’s “a real sense of worry,” Trimpa added, “because once they vote that way, we’re having to convince these folks to vote the other way.”

Adrian Felix, secretary for the Democratic Party of Denver, called the strategy a “mistake.”

“Maybe that money could have been better spent on helping candidates up and down the ballot — for actual Democrats,” added Felix, who met with O’Dea at an LGBTQ event last weekend and said he appreciated his attendance. “With that said, I think at the end of the day that it’s really not going to matter. I think that Joe O’Dea is probably not as competitive as he thinks.”

J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, defended the strategy.

“As a result of the primary, O’Dea was forced to burn through cash, embrace Trump and show his true colors as a rubber stamp for Mitch McConnell and a dangerous MAGA agenda to take away a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions,” Poersch said, referring to McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate. “National Republicans are now saddled with propping up a badly bruised candidate who has revealed himself as completely out of step with Colorado voters on everything from abortion rights to commonsense gun reform.”

Since the late June primaries, Bennet’s campaign has spent more than $1.8 million on advertising, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact. O’Dea, a super PAC that supports him and the NRSC have spent about half that. One of the early Bennet spots features him fly-fishing and presents him as an independent-minded friend to public lands.

“Michael’s record speaks to his commitment of putting Coloradans and hard-working families first,” Bennet spokesperson Georgina Beven said, pointing specifically to $4 billion worth of drought funding that he and other senators from Western states pushed to include in a sweeping bill partly aimed at fighting climate change and signed into law by Biden last week.

“He fought for the Colorado way of life by protecting public lands, helping our state recover from wildfires and drought, and making historic investments in renewable energy to create good-paying jobs and prevent these disasters from happening in the future,” Beven added.

An early O’Dea commercial shows him astride a galloping horse and doffing a cowboy hat as he and others emphasize his working-class roots and characterize him as someone who will work across the political aisle. When asked this week which Republicans he hoped to see run for president instead of Trump in 2024, O'Dea reeled off several names, including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

More recently, though, abortion has erupted as a point of tension in the Senate race. A new Bennet TV ad focuses on O’Dea’s opposition to a new state law passed this year to guarantee abortion rights in the state ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s anticipated reversal of Roe v. Wade. O’Dea responded with a digital ad starring his daughter, Tayler, who vows that her father will protect abortion and contraception rights while calling Bennet a “sleazy politician.”

O’Dea had declared he was against sweeping abortion bans before the court overturned Roe. But he also favors restrictions that aren't on the books in Colorado. And at times his exact positions have been hard to pin down.

He told The Colorado Sun last week that he voted for a failed 2020 ballot measure that would have banned the procedure at 22 weeks, without exceptions for rape or incest, and later clarified that he believes abortions should be legal up to 20 weeks. O'Dea has said he favors exceptions later in pregnancy in cases of rape or incest, or for issues involving the mother’s health. He also favors parental notification, opposes using tax dollars for abortions and is against requiring religious organizations that object for faith-based reasons to provide them.

O'Dea was noncommittal this week when asked if he’d support federal legislation to codify abortion rights.

“If I get there and there’s a bill in front of me and it preserves what I’ve said — 20 weeks, no taxpayer dollars, no religious institutions having to do what they don’t want to do, parental notification — then I’ll take a look at it, and I’d probably sign up for that,” he said.

Women’s health advocates say O’Dea’s conditions put him out of step with Coloradans.

“He’s still living in a world in which Roe is the benchmark,” said Selina Najar, political director for Cobalt, a Colorado abortion-rights group that has endorsed Bennet for re-election. “Roe is no longer the benchmark in Colorado. Colorado voters have directly spoken on this issue and stated four times since 2008 that we do not believe in having abortion bans in this state.”