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Can Republicans pull off an upset in Colorado’s Senate race?

Associated Press/David Zalubowski - Greg Nash

Republicans are hoping Colorado Senate candidate Joe O’Dea’s move to distance himself from the more extreme elements of the party will help them pull off a win in what could be a potential sleeper race come November.

O’Dea, a construction company executive running to unseat Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), has expressed support for some abortion rights while also bucking his party by suggesting former President Trump shouldn’t run in 2024.

Republicans argue that by branding himself as a moderate, O’Dea will appeal to critical voting blocs in the state, like independents and Hispanic voters, even if some in the party acknowledge he likely faces an uphill climb.

“I think that those same unaffiliated voters that voted so overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in ‘18 and ‘20 are ready to look at Republican candidates in 2022. And I think Joe O’Dea is the perfect kind of candidate to appeal to them,” said Dick Wadhams, a former state GOP chair.

Unlike many of the Republican Senate nominees this cycle, O’Dea prevailed in his primary without Trump’s endorsement. He’s touted himself as an independent thinker and political outsider comfortable with straying from his party. 

“I’m the only Senate candidate from the Republican Party that hasn’t been endorsed by Donald Trump. Probably not going to send me a Christmas card,” O’Dea said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, though other Republican nominees have also won without Trump’s endorsement. 

The decision to keep Trump at arm’s length is likely what helped him clinch the party’s nomination in Colorado, long seen as a purple state, but one that’s been trending blue in recent cycles.

“They would not have voted for Ron Hanks,” Wadhams said, referring to the hard-right candidate who lost the GOP primary against O’Dea. “In fact, they would have been even more repelled by him. A guy like Joe [O’Dea], who’s running a very independent-minded campaign I think is the perfect candidate to appeal to those voters because I don’t think that Senator Bennet has any real hold on them.”

Compared to Hanks — who was seen as the more Trump-aligned candidate who pushed dubious claims about the last election — O’Dea was seen as the more traditional, establishment-aligned Republican, given that he has affirmed President Biden won in 2020

But Democrats are unconvinced that O’Dea is the kind of moderate he’s projecting himself to be. While the construction company executive has vocalized support for abortion access within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and with limited exceptions afterward, some Democrats point to reporting from The Colorado Sun that he signed a petition in favor of putting a ban on abortions after 22 weeks with limited exceptions on the 2020 ballot. They also highlight his support for Trump’s three Supreme Court appointees, who would ultimately be a part of the majority opinion in overturning Roe v. Wade.

Democrats also argue O’Dea’s messaging on Trump isn’t consistent either, pointing to his previous comments that the former president shouldn’t bear responsibility for the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. O’Dea, who made those comments during a primary debate, said Trump “could have done a lot more to slow that process down.”

“Joe O’Dea is running to give Mitch McConnell a [Senate] majority that would enact a national abortion ban, confirm right-wing judges and oppose common sense gun safety laws – and that it is why Colorado voters are going to reject him this November,” Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said in a statement.

Republicans, for their part, argue that Democrats’ criticisms of O’Dea are hypocritical given that they tried to paint him as a moderate during the primary in an effort to boost his more hard-right rival.

“Democrats spent $10 million meddling in the Republican primary, trying to make Joe O’Dea seem too moderate for a conservative electorate. They failed because Republicans like Joe O’Dea and believe that he’ll fight for them in Washington,” said T.W. Arrighi, national press secretary for the Senate GOP campaign arm, in a statement. “Now, Democrats want Colorado voters to believe the opposite. They again will fail because Joe O’Dea is a pragmatic Republican who has a great story and a point of view that Coloradans share.”

O’Dea said in a statement he’s not beholden to choosing only conservative judges, pointing to his support of liberal Justice Elena Kagan in addition to Justices John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch.

Additionally, Kyle Kohli, communications director for O’Dea, argued that the candidate’s comments about Trump’s responsibility for the Capitol riot were taken out of context, pointing to the candidate’s “Meet the Press” interview last month where he said that those who committed violence during the Capitol riot should be held responsible.

He acknowledged that while O’Dea did sign a petition for the abortion ban, he reiterated in a statement that “Joe supports a woman’s right to choose in the first 5 months of pregnancy, and opposes late term abortion. He’ll vote that way. There will be some who don’t agree with Joe’s well established opposition to late term abortion just as there are Republicans who disagree with his support for abortion rights early on.”

Still, even some Republicans acknowledge the challenges O’Dea faces.

“[The campaign has] been well-funded enough to … I think to introduce [him] to voters as a new face. I feel overall it’s, you know, it’s got legs, it’s got resources,” said David Flaherty, a Colorado-based GOP pollster.

But Flaherty also noted the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, Trump’s continued presence within national politics and the decline of registered Republican voters in the state have complicated the political environment for the party. 

Indeed, Colorado has not been particularly kind to Republican candidates in recent years. Hillary Clinton won the state against former President Trump by roughly 5 percentage points in 2016, and President Biden won it in 2020 by more than 13 percentage points. 

The last time Republicans won a Senate seat in the Centennial State was back in 2014, when Cory Gardner ousted Sen. Mark Udall (D). Gardner later lost reelection to Sen. John Hickenlooper (D) in 2020. 

Recent polling also shows O’Dea trailing Bennet. An Emerson College Polling-The Hill survey released in September showed Bennet holding 46 percent support compared to 36 percent received by O’Dea. Recent polling from the GOP polling firm Trafalgar Group and the left-leaning Public Policy Polling shows the incumbent up between single and double digits.

Two key voting blocs that will play a decisive role in the race will be independent voters and Hispanic voters. Unaffiliated voters make up close to half of active registered voters alone in the state — a whopping 45 percent, according to data from the Colorado secretary of state’s office as of early September.

“There’s kind of a misperception in the Beltway that Colorado is this perpetual blue place because of recent election outcomes, but I’ve been doing politics out here for my whole life, and it’s always been a toss-up state statewide for governor or the Senate. And that’s the case right now,” said Democratic strategist Mike Stratton, who’s worked previously on campaigns for Bennet and Hickenlooper.

Hispanic voters make up roughly a fifth of the voting population. The campaigns have taken note, given that both have Spanish- and English-language versions of their website and have launched Spanish-language ad buys. National groups, such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have also launched Hispanic engagement efforts in the state,

While Democrats — and even some Republicans — believe that Bennet will ultimately prevail in November, they note the political headwinds their party still faces.

“You have some issues that are a drag, I think, on Democrats,” said Alan Salazar, a longtime Democratic strategist and chief of staff to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (D). “Obviously, Republicans are making a case that the Democrats are responsible for inflation. Democrats are responsible for rising gas prices …. And it’s just a tough time. It’s also a time when, as you know, presidents often lose seats in their party. So you’ve got that hangover as well.”

Ultimately, though, Democrats are betting they’ll be able to make the case against O’Dea to Colorado voters.

“He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing; any notion that O’Dea is this unicorn candidate who poses a threat to Michael’s reelection campaign is misinformed,” Georgina Beven, Bennet campaign spokesperson, said in a statement. “Michael has a strong record of delivering for Colorado and Coloradans recognize how his effectiveness in Washington has supported the needs of our state.”

Tags Abortion Colorado Senate Race Donald Trump Michael Bennet Michael Bennet Roe v. Wade

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