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In Colorado Senate race, a Republican tacks to the center on abortion

GOP nominee Joe O’Dea is assiduously seeking to defuse Democratic attacks on women’s rights and turn public attention back to the economy, crime and other issues.

Joe O'Dea, center, is joined by his wife, Celeste, right, daughter Tayler and son-in-law David Freund, back left, before speaking at a Republican primary election night watch party on June 28 in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

In a year where Republican primary voters across America have taken a hard right turn toward former president Donald Trump, GOP voters in Colorado made a different choice Tuesday — nominating for the Senate a relatively moderate businessman, Joe O’Dea, who has rejected Trump’s claims of election fraud, ruled out repealing the Affordable Care Act and offered a limited embrace of abortion rights.

National Republican operatives believe O’Dea’s nomination could spell serious trouble for incumbent Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and potentially pull what has been a Democratic-trending state back into purple territory — particularly in a year where President Biden and congressional Democrats are facing intense economic head winds.

The race also stands to represent a key battleground for abortion politics in the first post-Roe congressional election cycle — a state that Biden won by nearly 15 percentage points and has a history of strongly supporting reproductive rights where the Republican nominee is assiduously seeking to defuse the issue and turn public attention back to the economy, crime and other issues.

Election deniers in Colo. rejected in favor of more moderate Republicans

Bennet, meanwhile, appears poised to put the issue front and center: “He’ll be a rubber stamp for Mitch McConnell’s agenda, including a nationwide abortion ban,” Bennet posted on social media minutes after the Associated Press called the primary for O’Dea.

O’Dea has sketched out a nuanced stance in recent debates and media appearances, saying he supports abortion rights “early in the pregnancy” and exceptions otherwise for cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the mother. But he has not sketched out where exactly in gestation he would draw the line of legality, and he has also voiced support for restricting government spending on abortions and requiring parental notification for minors.

The contrast might have been clearer had Colorado Republicans nominated O’Dea’s leading primary opponent, state Sen. Ron Hanks, who advocated for a no-exceptions ban on abortion — even for the life of the mother. Democratic-affiliated groups spent some $10 million during the primary seeking to elevate Hanks in the eyes of GOP primary voters, with some ads calling Hanks “too conservative” for Colorado.

But Republicans believe the ad blitz may have had the unintended effect of burnishing O’Dea’s credibility as a moderate. In his victory speech Tuesday night in Denver, O’Dea did not mention abortion rights but cast himself as “a Republican Joe Manchin” — in a reference to the maverick West Virginia Democratic senator — who would “work with reasonable people on both sides of the aisle and stand up to the extremes.”

“I’ll vote my conscience, I’ll make tough choices, I’ll ruffle some feathers, and I’ll always put America and Colorado first,” he said. “No political party will own me.”

GOP state Rep. Colin Larson, a O’Dea supporter who describes himself as a fellow “pragmatist,” said the self-made construction mogul is the right candidate for the moment in a state that has become increasingly frustrated with Democratic governance at the national, state and local level.

“You had a coalition of Republicans that are sick of losing — they want to win — and then you had a lot of these unaffiliates who were really turned off by President Trump’s rhetoric,” he said. “But now that they’ve had two years divorced from that … they’re saying, ‘yeah, we may be a little too far overboard. We need a little more balance.’ ”

Larson, who personally opposes abortion rights, said he believed that O’Dea would be able to thread a political needle with his abortion stance, even in the aftermath of Roe’s demise: “You’re going to take that issue off the table for that race. That’s not where I’m at personally. I’m a pro-life legislator. But, you know, I’m happy to support Joe because, look, the reality is that seems to be where the majority of Coloradans are.”

It may not be so simple.

Democrats note that the abortion issue has a rich, recent history in Colorado politics — including a hard-fought 2014 Senate race between incumbent Democrat Mark Udall and GOP Rep. Cory Gardner — a race that Udall sought to turn into a referendum on a Republican “war on women.” Gardner himself sought to defuse the issue, stepping away from prior positions that included support for “personhood” efforts that sought to define life as beginning at conception.

Gardner ultimately prevailed by less than 2 percentage points, and, during his one Senate term, voted for all three of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees — who provided the decisive margin in overturning Roe last week.

Democrats insist that Colorado women are not going to forget about the last Republican Senate candidate who tried to tack to the center on abortion rights, and they believe it will be easy to make the case that O’Dea cannot be trusted on the issue in a state where voters, less than two years ago, overwhelmingly defeated a ballot initiative that would ban abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy except to save the mother’s life.

Laura K. Chapin, a Colorado-based Democratic political consultant, said she does not expect history to repeat itself. “Part of what was in play in 2014 was everybody was like, 'Oh, no, no, no — Roe will never be overturned,” she said. “Well, it has, and Colorado is very much bearing the brunt of the consequences.”

O’Dea has indicated that he would have voted to confirm the same justices that Gardner voted to confirm, and he has declined to endorse a Colorado state law ensuring abortion rights, as well as a Democratic bill in Congress that would codify in federal law the constitutional rights that the Supreme Court overturned last week.

Chapin, who consults for Cobalt, a Colorado-based abortion rights advocacy group that has endorsed Bennet, said that record will give Bennet and Democrats plenty of fuel to sow doubt in voters’ minds about O’Dea: “I don’t really see how he gets away with saying he supports abortion rights when he supports the justices who overturned Roe, [and opposes] the state law protecting abortion rights and the federal law that would have codified Roe.”

National Democrats are making a similar bet, and they are already signaling they are ready to paint O’Dea as a stealth opponent of abortion rights despite his public pronouncements otherwise. If nothing else, they are prepared to argue, electing O’Dea would also help restore a GOP Senate majority that worked for years to overturn Roe.

“At the end of the day, voters know that a vote for Joe O’Dea is a vote to turn the Senate over to Mitch McConnell and to a Republican Party that would outlaw abortion everywhere, and that is deeply out of step with the voters that decide the general election in Colorado,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein.

Bennet’s campaign spokeswoman, Georgina Beven, said Bennet “believes that the decision a woman makes about her body is deeply personal and should only be decided between a woman and her doctor.”

“We can’t let the courts have the last word on this, and we have to elect pro-choice Dems this November who will protect our constitutional freedoms,” she said.

Democrats have signaled they are prepared to battle O’Dea on other fronts, as well, highlighting remarks where he suggested openness to cutting Medicare and Social Security, his opposition to new gun-control laws, and his avowed support for Trump should he win the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.

Republicans, however, said they are more than comfortable waging the campaign on other ground. Sen. Rick Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, congratulated O’Dea in a statement Tuesday in which he blamed Bennet for “helping to drive inflation, gas price increases, and a crisis at our Southern Border.” O’Dea, he said, “has an inspirational story, built a successful business, and will help get our economy and country back on track.”

Nowhere in that statement, or in several others issued by Republican campaign organizations, did it mention his abortion stance.

“Abortion tends to be, in my experience, an issue that people get energized about when everything else is going well,” Larson said. “You can really care about abortion when your 401(k) is doing well, when your job’s secure, when your checking account is flush. But that’s not the reality we’re in now.”