DENVER — Late on election night, the nation’s eyes might be on Colorado, with control of the U.S. Senate in 2023 hanging in the balance. And even if that Republican aspiration has been put out of reach by the party’s selection of intellectually down-market Senate candidates in a slew of states, the GOP nominee here, Joe O’Dea, might have discovered the template for being an appealing Republican even while much of the party grovels to someone appalling.
O’Dea, 60, is challenging Sen. Michael Bennet, 57, a two-term Democratic incumbent. Their contest underscores their parties’ current profiles.
Bennet’s father, whose family arrived on the Mayflower, was a diplomat, senior State Department official for presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and — you will murmur “of course” — president of National Public Radio. Bennet’s mother survived the Holocaust, as did her parents. Bennet himself attended Washington’s toney St. Albans School and moved to Colorado after Yale Law School and a stint at a premier Washington law firm (Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr). In Denver, he became wealthy working for billionaire investor Philip Anschutz, was appointed city schools superintendent, then in 2009 was appointed to complete the term of a senator who joined President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.
O’Dea, a fourth-generation Coloradan married to the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, was adopted at birth into a Denver police officer’s family. To help pay his Catholic-school tuition, O’Dea washed dishes at a pizza restaurant until he was promoted to kneading the dough, which required him to rise, like the dough, at 2:30 a.m. Impatient to start a business — installing attic fans in houses without air conditioning — from his basement, he left Colorado State University three credits short of graduation. His construction company now has 300 employees, 80 percent of them Hispanics, and specializes in large civil engineering projects. He has prospered enough to sink $2 million in his Senate campaign.
But the crucial financial contribution to his political campaign was the perhaps $10 million that Democrats spent trying to manipulate voters into nominating one of O’Dea’s rivals in the Republican primary. Democrats spent that money on ads cynically attempting to help a fire-breathing “stop the steal” state legislator who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The Democratic-funded ads labeled him “too conservative for Colorado,” hoping to kindle conservatives’ enthusiasm for him. And Democrats tried to wound O’Dea by praising him as a “moderate,” an epithet among fans of the firebreather.
The Democrats’ attempt to stampede conservatives into supporting a weak general-election candidate backfired. Colorado has open primaries, and unaffiliated voters, who are 45 percent of Colorado’s electorate, stampeded toward O’Dea. Now Democrats, having tried to stigmatize O’Dea as a moderate, must pivot to claiming he is MAGA extremist.
Inconveniently, O’Dea says he hopes Donald Trump does not run again. (“I don’t want to see him as president.”) He speaks reluctantly about social issues. Regarding abortion, he is about where a plurality of Americans seem to be: Allow the procedure early in pregnancy (92.7 percent now occur in the first 12 weeks), no elective late-term abortions, no public funding, require parental consent for minors’ abortions. And he says that if he had been a senator in 2010, he would have voted to confirm Elena Kagan, Obama’s last successful Supreme Court nominee. O’Dea was the only one of eight candidates in the Republican primary to clearly say Joe Biden won the 2020 election.
In the Senate, Bennet has consistently sought occasions for bipartisanship, and has occasionally been heterodox (e.g., he voted to override Obama’s veto of the Keystone XL pipeline). He has, however, been orthodox on the highest-stakes votes: He opposed confirmation to the Supreme Court of Coloradan Neil M. Gorsuch, as well as Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Bennet’s intractable problem is Coloradans’ 56 percent disapproval of Joe Biden, and their 80 percent agreement — up from 60 percent last summer — with the proposition that the nation is on the wrong track. Based on nationwide hemorrhaging of Hispanic support for Democrats, O’Dea hopes to get the support of 60 percent of the 22.3 percent (the seventh-largest percentage among the states) of Coloradans who are Hispanics.
O’Dea’s candidacy, in a purple state trending blue (Colorado has voted Republican in presidential politics only twice in this century’s six elections), tests many Coloradans’ often professed disdain for both parties. If voters embrace O’Dea’s temperate conservatism, they will encourage Republicans elsewhere to emulate his declaration of independence from their most recent presidential candidate’s whining about imagined 2020 grievances. So, Coloradans have the nation’s political healing in their hands.