The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Republican who says Trump lost looks to put Colorado’s Senate race in play

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet faces a tougher-than-expected reelection race after Republicans nominate businessman Joe O’Dea over an election denier

From left, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Sens. Michael F. Bennet and John Hickenlooper, all Democrats, talk to reporters about the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act on Aug. 16 at Camp Hale, Colo. (Vail Daily/AP)

DENVER — Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) has seen difficult campaign cycles. He barely survived the Republican tsunami in 2010, chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2014 when his party got wiped out and, in 2016, won reelection against a flawed opponent with not quite 50 percent of the vote.

Until recently, Bennet’s bid this year for a third term had attracted little national attention. But two things have changed that:

One is the intensification in the battle for overall control of the Senate, due to concerns among Republicans that, despite a favorable political climate, weak candidates could cost them seats in November.

The other is the Republican opponent Bennet has drawn. In an election season in which Republican primary voters in toss-up states like Arizona and Pennsylvania have elevated election deniers and other questionable candidates, Denver business executive Joe O’Dea stands out as an exception.

To win the GOP nomination, O’Dea defeated Ron Hanks, a state representative who had participated in President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, though he did not go into the Capitol with the rioters. That a Trump follower was defeated in the June primary is perhaps not surprising. Colorado voters have shown an especially deep dislike for Trump. His vote percentages in the state in 2016 and 2020 were in the bottom 15 of all 50 states. There was also a surge of unaffiliated voters who participated in the Republican primary, which also likely contributed to a statewide ticket that GOP officials say is their strongest in years.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday that there’s a better chance of Republicans winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives than the Senate, noting “candidate quality” in statewide races.

O’Dea is still an underdog against Bennet, and even if he were to prevail, Republicans may need to pick up another Senate seat or two to win back the majority, given current trends in some key races.

Republicans see Nevada as a good opportunity to gain a Senate seat, but their hopes of winning the Democratic-held seat in Georgia have been hurt by the candidacy of their nominee, Herschel Walker. And a recent poll in Arizona showed Sen. Mark Kelly (D) leading Republican election denier Blake Masters.

Meanwhile, other polls show Democratic candidates leading in the GOP-held seats in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and even in increasingly red Ohio, Republicans may not be a sure thing, given the uneven performance so far by GOP nominee J.D. Vance.

One sign of the perceived potential for Republicans in Colorado came last week when the independent Cook Political Report With Amy Walter shifted its rating from likely Democrat to lean Democrat. A congressional colleague of Bennet’s said privately that he believes the incumbent will prevail but that the contest with O’Dea is “a real race.”

Bennet, whose memories of 2010, 2014 and 2016 remain fresh, doesn’t disagree. The effects of rising gasoline and food prices, the history of midterm elections costing the party in power and the unpopularity of President Biden in Colorado and nationally adds up, he said, to a “tough combination.” But he said there is a big difference from those past cycles that he hopes will play to his advantage. “I think that we have a record of accomplishment that looks different than any of those prior years,” he said.

Bennet, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, spoke during an interview at a Denver coffee shop a few days before Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act. The big climate, health-care and tax bill that was passed on party-line votes in the House and Senate was a signal Democratic achievement after Congress had enacted several other laws — a gun safety bill, a semiconductor production bill and a measure to help veterans exposed to toxic burn sites — with both Democratic and Republican votes.

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McConnell has said the GOP will be “all in” for O’Dea, as many see him as setting up a favorable contrast with Bennet. A political novice, O’Dea is a construction magnate and self-made executive with deep roots in Colorado. He dropped out of college to set off on his own to build a company that now employs “300 families,” as he put it during an interview in his campaign office.

Asked if he has always thought of himself as a Republican, he said: “I’ve always thought of myself as a conservative. I’m probably not what you call a fringe Republican.” O’Dea doesn’t question the legitimacy of Biden’s victory in 2020 and calls the Jan. 6 riot “a black eye on our country.”

O’Dea said he did vote for Trump in 2016 and 2020, but he hopes neither Trump nor Biden will run in 2024. He said he would try to help someone else become the Republican presidential nominee. Asked if he would vote for Trump if he was the 2024 GOP nominee, O’Dea hedged: “I wouldn’t vote for Biden,” he said. “We’ll have to see. You know, that’s a hypothetical.”

O’Dea said he decided to run for the Senate because he saw “our freedoms get encroached on” by government. “I call it death by a thousand cuts,” he added. “Government getting in the way of business, getting in the way of employees being able to live their lives freely, and more and more encroachment into what we do, and rules and regulations and red tape, and none of it adds value.”

He said he believes the climate is changing but favors “prudent” rather than “urgent” action. Asked about his stance on environmental regulations, particularly with regard to fossil fuels, he said, “I would default to those people that know — oil and gas people.”

Unlike many in his party, O’Dea opposed the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe v. Wade. He calls himself “personally pro-life” but supports abortion rights for up to about 20 weeks of a pregnancy and supports exceptions for rape, incest and both the life and health of the mother in later months. He said he would not support a national law banning abortion if he were in the Senate.

But Bennet’s newest television ad takes on O’Dea for saying he would have voted for all three of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, who provided the key votes to overturn Roe, and says that his challenger opposes a new law in Colorado guaranteeing abortion access.

O’Dea said he would not have supported the new gun safety bill nor the Inflation Reduction Act, points that Bennet jumped on.

“My vote for the bipartisan gun bill is popular in Colorado,” Bennet said. “His opposition to the bipartisan gun bill is unpopular in Colorado. My vote for the reconciliation package is extremely popular in Colorado. His view that he doesn’t like anything in that reconciliation package is incredibly unpopular.”

O’Dea said he and Bennet “could not be more different,” an indication that he intends to draw a personal contrast between a fourth-generation Coloradan who worked his way up in the business world and an incumbent who was raised in Washington as the son of a diplomat, went to elite schools and who was first appointed to the Senate rather than running for and winning the seat outright.

“I know what it’s like to have to put, you know, food on the table for a family,” O’Dea said. “I know what it’s like to sign checks. I know what it’s like to put a payroll on my own credit card so I can make sure I pay my help. All those things I understand. That’s a big contrast to where he’s come from.”

Bennet dismisses the blue-collar vs. privileged contrast. “He will invent whatever he wants to invent,” Bennet said. “I’ve represented Colorado for 14 years. My positions on these issues are clear. … Joe O’Dea’s cartoon version of who I am is not who I am. I think my record is very clear. I know what I believe, and I don’t have to think about it.”

Colorado hasn’t yet become as competitive as contests in some of the other states that have been in the forefront of the fight for the Senate. And O’Dea remains relatively untested as a candidate. But if the political climate worsens further for Democrats, the Bennet-O’Dea race could become critical in who controls the Senate in January.