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Even Mitch McConnell’s “perfect” candidate might not win in Colorado

Republican Joe O’Dea says he’ll buck his party and Trump.

Joe O’Dea, a construction company CEO and first-time candidate for office, celebrates the Republican nomination for US Senate over state Rep. Ron Hanks at Mile High Station in Denver, Colorado, on June 28, 2022.
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has publicly lamented the quality of Republican Senate candidates ahead of the 2022 midterms, saying they potentially cost his party control of the chamber in 2022. But he has identified Joe O’Dea, the Republican challenging incumbent Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, as an exception.

“We think we can win this race,” McConnell reportedly told donors in July, calling O’Dea “the perfect candidate.”

O’Dea, a first-time candidate and businessman, is running as a dealmaker willing to buck his party and its figurehead, former President Donald Trump. He’s not a candidate in the mold of a typical MAGA Republican in that he says President Joe Biden fairly won the 2020 election, and that he hopes Trump doesn’t run again in 2024.

In a state that has trended blue over the last few election cycles and where Trump is deeply unpopular, a candidate further to the right probably wouldn’t succeed. Democrats were certainly banking on that. During the GOP primaries, Democratic groups spent roughly $4 million on ads designed to make far-right candidate Ron Hanks, who has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election, look like the true conservative in the race and more appealing to GOP voters than O’Dea.

O’Dea nevertheless won the nomination, and now Democrats have to fight the perception they helped create that O’Dea is, by comparison, a moderate. Bennet has the edge: He’s nearly nine points ahead in the polls on average, according to FiveThirtyEight’s estimate, and the Cook Political Report rates the race as “lean Democrat.” That’s a comfortable lead, but one that the polls might be overestimating and that O’Dea, with McConnell’s help, could feasibly overcome in the weeks before Election Day.

Should O’Dea succeed in Colorado, national Republicans might take that as a sign that they shouldn’t be leaning so heavily into Trumpism in swing states, especially where independents and unaffiliated voters make up a sizable share of the electorate that they need to win. But if he still falls short as anticipated, then the party’s right wing could take that as more reason to dig in their heels.

How close is the race really?

In late August, the Cook Political Report changed its rating of the race from “likely Democrat” to “lean Democrat,” spurring a flurry of headlines about how Colorado was more competitive than anticipated. “[T]his is a race we need to consider competitive, given that’s how both parties are treating it,” the Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor wrote at the time.

Bennet’s lead has recovered since then, according to an August poll by Public Policy Polling, and Mike Stratton, a Democratic political strategist based in Denver, attributes that to an improved national environment for Democrats. Biden’s approval ratings are up, and the base appears to be coming home in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. A series of Democratic legislative wins, including the Inflation Reduction Act and a bipartisan infrastructure bill, appears to be helping as well.

But Republicans are still holding out hope. Greg Brophy, a former Republican state senator who ran for governor in 2014, said that Colorado, which has a plurality of persuadable unaffiliated voters, is not immune to potential national polling errors. He argued polls could be underestimating how close the race is. And when Bennet previously won reelection in 2010 and 2016, he was up against Republicans who were perceived to be the easiest to beat among their primary opponents, Brophy added. That’s not the case this time.

“I do believe it’s really competitive. O’Dea seems to be the perfect candidate for Colorado,” Brophy said.

An August poll commissioned by the Republican Attorneys General Association and conducted by GOP strategist Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group backs up Brophy’s optimism: It showed Bennet ahead by only 1 percentage point. A flurry of coverage sizing up O’Dea’s odds followed. Democratic pollster Craig Hughes discounted that poll because there isn’t much publicly available information on it — only what was published by the Washington Examiner, which didn’t include the toplines or methodology details in its report.

Aside from the GOP poll, there’s not much to indicate trouble for Bennet. At this point, he even appears to be outperforming his margins from 2010 and 2016, when he won by less than 2 percentage points and 6 percentage points, respectively.

“I don’t see a lot of evidence that this race is closer than expected,” Hughes said.

There are still several weeks before the election. In that time, the tide of the race could change if the national environment shifts in Republicans’ favor. Though gas prices are down from their peak a few months ago, an unexpectedly bad inflation report earlier this month could dampen Democrats’ messaging on the economy. A big cash infusion from a McConnell-linked super PAC or other outside groups — something made more likely by Republicans’ concerns about their chances in other Senate battlegrounds like Arizona and Pennsylvania — could also shake things up, though Bennet still has a huge cash-on-hand advantage.

“McConnell is going to spend money here to go after Bennet if he’s vulnerable,” Stratton said.

O’Dea is running as a moderate. Democrats say he’s anything but.

Democrats’ meddling in the GOP primary ultimately backfired on them. They tried to elevate Hanks, a Trumpier Republican Democrats believed Bennet could easily defeat, but instead helped boost little-known O’Dea’s name recognition and shape his image as a moderate.

“Hanks was rated one of the most conservative members of the statehouse,” said one ad by Democratic Colorado, which is primarily funded by a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “Ron Hanks — too conservative for Colorado.”

Another ad, also by Democratic Colorado, highlighted O’Dea’s past donations to Democrats, including Sen. John Hickenlooper and Bennet, and his support for Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill in an effort to call into question his conservative credentials.

“Joe O’Dea is not who he says he is,” the ad says, as the words “Joe O’Dea: Republican?” flash across the screen.

Those characterizations might help O’Dea among Colorado’s potentially persuadable unaffiliated voters, who made up 46 percent of the electorate as of September. And the GOP’s counting on that image to narrow the race.

“Thank you, Chuck, for pumping up Joe’s name ID, and we’ll see you in November,” Brophy said.

O’Dea is an increasingly rare breed of Republican. He didn’t question Biden’s win in 2020. He has said that Trump “could’ve done a lot more” to stop the January 6 insurrection, which he has referred to as a “black eye on our country.”

He has touted the fact that he is the only Republican nominee for Senate without a Trump endorsement. He has said that he would concede his race with Bennet if he loses, unlike many other Republican candidates this year. And though he has said he would vote for Trump again over Biden if it came to it, he’d rather back another Republican nominee in 2024, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Though, by supporting DeSantis, O’Dea isn’t putting much distance between himself and Trumpism. DeSantis, who has recently stoked culture war battles by sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and signing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, would be a Trumpian candidate.

“I think O’Dea is benefiting from a very, very low bar of expectations for Republican Senate candidates right now. The fact that he’s not a full-on fire-breathing MAGA person has given him more credence with the national press. But it doesn’t mean he’s in touch with where Coloradans are,” Hughes said.

O’Dea does have some policy positions that set him apart from his party’s right wing: He supports Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and Democrats’ same-sex marriage bill, would give Dreamers full legal status, would not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act (though thinks it should be amended in ways he hasn’t yet specified), and has criticized the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. He’s focused his campaign on pocketbook issues, though is still throwing plenty of red meat to the base: for example, supporting a border wall and tackling crime with more policing in Democratic cities.

Democrats are now trying to combat the notion that O’Dea is a moderate. Bennet campaign press secretary Georgina Beven said that O’Dea’s views are “too far-right” for mainstream Colorado politics and that he’s still a “Trump apologist” because he believes the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago is a “political stunt,” despite his efforts to distance himself from the former president.

“Voters here see O’Dea for what he really is, another rubber stamp in the Senate for Mitch McConnell’s radical agenda,” she added.

Two competing issues defining the race

As in many other battleground states this cycle, the economy and abortion are among Colorado voters’ top priorities — and issues where both candidates perceive weakness on the other side.

Colorado is one of only a few states that has codified abortion rights at any stage of pregnancy and is home to a big-tent pro-abortion-rights constituency. Even though abortion is protected in Colorado, the notion that O’Dea could become a vote for further national restrictions on abortion is looming over the race.

“​​The choice issue has come home in a big way for Bennet. Republican women here are pro-choice,” Stratton said.

O’Dea has cast himself as a moderate on abortion who would restrict access to the procedure more than Roe did, but who wouldn’t vote to ban it completely. He said that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe was wrong and also came out against Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed nationwide abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy, calling it “reckless and tone deaf.”

He has said that he would support a bill in Congress protecting abortion rights up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. That puts him in line with much of the Senate GOP caucus, who’ve signed on to 20-week national bans in the past. And like many Republicans, he’s explicitly said that he would not support “late-term” abortions (a non-medical term that typically refers to abortions after at least 21 to 24 weeks of pregnancy) unless medically necessary and in cases of rape and incest. He also opposes taxpayer funding for the procedure and supports parental notification for minors receiving the procedure.

“He’s landed on trying to bring some stability to a really challenging issue,” Zack Roday, O’Dea’s campaign manager, said.

Overall, O’Dea has a traditionally conservative stance on abortion, albeit one he has tried to characterize as middle of the road. The Bennet campaign, however, has been urging voters not to take O’Dea at his word when it comes to protecting abortion rights.

“Joe O’Dea isn’t being honest with Coloradans. He approves of all of Trump’s radical Supreme Court justices who just overturned Roe v. Wade, opposes our state’s law that protects reproductive freedom, and supported a ballot measure in 2020 that would’ve imposed an abortion ban here, without exceptions for rape and incest,” Beven, Bennet’s press secretary, said.

O’Dea has said that he would have confirmed all of the justices that Trump nominated, called the Colorado law “reckless” because it permits abortions at any stage of pregnancy, and voted for the ballot measure that would have banned abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Bennet’s campaign hopes the fact that 59 percent of Coloradans support abortion access will spur voters to back him — or, at least, depress GOP turnout for O’Dea. Bennet has since sought to exploit O’Dea’s perceived weakness on the issue and made it a key pillar of his reelection campaign.

Still, as in other contests, the economy is front and center in the race. Colorado voters’ top priorities are inflation and the economy, according to a September poll by the ACLU of Colorado. As a member of the party in power, Bennet may have a hard time winning over Coloradans who are financially hurting. Whether or not economists say the US is in a recession, it’s clear consumers are feeling the pinch of higher prices.

O’Dea, a fiscal conservative who supported Trump’s tax cuts, is counting on the economy being the issue that ultimately decides the race. Both O’Dea and Bennet have recently run Spanish-language ads designed to sell their economic policies to Latino voters, with O’Dea positioning himself as the “voice of working-class people” and promising to reduce gas prices and inflation without going into any specifics. For his part, Bennet touts his support for pandemic aid to small businesses, renewable energy sector jobs, the bipartisan infrastructure law, and the American Rescue Plan, which included a temporary expanded child tax credit that Bennet fought for.

How persuasive the candidates are remains to be seen. But voters looking for an alternative to Democratic economic policies or who want more traditional Republicans in the Senate could make the race a closer one than it currently appears.

O’Dea’s pitch to independents still might not be enough to diffuse Democrats’ arguments that O’Dea is too right-wing for Colorado. Nevertheless, this is a race to watch; as Stratton said, “He’s the profile of a Republican that would do best in this environment.”

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