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Joe O’Dea: The Republican Senate Candidate Who Survived Democratic Meddling
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Joe O’Dea: The Republican Senate Candidate Who Survived Democratic Meddling

Democrats tried to boost Joe O’Dea's primary opponent for a Colorado Senate seat. But now he’s taking on Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett as Democrats face strong headwinds.

Last month’s Republican Senate primary in Colorado didn’t go as Democrats had hoped.

In the lead-up to the June 28 primary, Democratic Colorado, a left-leaning super PAC, released an ad calling far-right Republican Senate candidate and state Sen. Ron Hanks “one of the most conservative members in the statehouse” while boosting his conservative credentials on abortion, the border wall, and the 2020 election.

The hope was that Republican voters would take the bait and elect Hanks—a 2020 election-denying candidate with just $20,470 on hand as of early June—over moderate Republican candidate Joe O’Dea, giving Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet a much higher chance of sailing to reelection in November with his multimillion dollar war chest on hand.

But that didn’t pan out. Despite Democrats’ best efforts to tilt the election in favor of Hanks, O’Dea still won last month’s primary by 9 points. “People want somebody they can trust. They’re tired of all these games that the Democrats are playing,” O’Dea said in an interview earlier this month.

His victory means that at a time when inflation is surpassing 9 percent and voter confidence in President Joe Biden continues to wane, Bennet will now have to face what typically amounts to a Democratic incumbent’s worst nightmare in competitive midterm cycles—a moderate Republican. 

“It’s not rocket science here,” O’Dea told The Dispatch while referencing rising crime and soaring consumer prices, among other kitchen table concerns that tip this year’s political environment in Republicans’ favor. “This is about what’s affecting Americans today.” He’s told voters that if elected, he plans to serve Colorado as a Republican version of Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat from West Virginia.

O’Dea is still the underdog in this race: He’s running in a state that Biden won by 13 points in 2020, and has just $840,000 on hand (after raking in $2 million last fundraising quarter) compared to Bennet’s $8 million. But his victory paints a challenging picture for Bennet, who won his 2010 Senate race by 1.7 points and his 2016 race by 5.2 points—unremarkable margins of victory for what most election analysts consider to be a blue state. 

And Biden’s 39 percent approval rating isn’t doing the Democratic incumbent any favors. “If things don’t get much better for Democrats, that’s a race that could be closer than expected,” said J. Miles Coleman, an elections analyst with Sabato’s Crystal Ball, adding that the Colorado Senate race still leans Democratic. “I can see it being a single-digit race.” 

Coleman expects Bennet will undergo similar challenges this midterm cycle as Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in Washington, another vulnerable blue state incumbent who faces tough competition in GOP frontrunner Tiffany Smiley.

Inflation and Biden approval numbers aside, Bennet may also struggle to wield one of the only weapons Colorado Democrats have working in their favor ahead of the midterms—the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Keenly aware of the electoral dynamics of his state, O’Dea has adopted a far more nuanced stance on Roe’s reversal than most Republican candidates this cycle. “There’s a precedent there that it kind of kept things peaceful for a while, and so I wasn’t in favor of the overturning, just on the [precedent],” O’Dea said of the Supreme Court decision. “And now we’ve got a different law in every state. Not sure that’s good for America.” 

The candidate said in an interview that he opposes legislative efforts to restrict abortion access “early on in the pregnancy or for rape and medical necessity.” But he made clear that he doesn’t support taxpayer-funded abortions or requiring religious institutions to perform abortion-related procedures. 

As November draws near, both contenders will also face tough questions about who ought to be their parties’ respective presidential nominees in 2024.

On the Republican side looms former President Donald Trump, who is currently at the center of the ongoing January 6 investigation and who is expected to run for reelection.

“If it’s a question of him, or Hillary, or Kamala, of course I’m gonna vote for him. But we got a lot of good candidates in the party right now,” O’Dea said. He mentioned Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota as potentially viable alternatives. “There’s a few people that could do an eight-year stint and I think that might be important. So I’d love to see how that all shakes out. That’s a ways down the road.”

Then there’s Biden, who continues to act as a thorn in Democrats’ side as reports emerge of intra-party frustrations with his leadership. Even Democratic lawmakers who have spent the past year voting with Biden 100 percent of the time now evade questions about whether they’d support him again in 2024 or campaign alongside him ahead of November.

Voters are more forthcoming about their dissatisfaction with the way things are going. Only 26 percent of registered Democratic voters surveyed in a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted this month said they want Biden to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024.

“When you’re in the same party as the president, that’s gonna be a tough cycle,” Bennet told Politico in May. 

He’s been tougher to pin down since O’Dea won the GOP nomination. Approached for comment in the U.S. Capitol early last week, Bennet brushed aside questions on his way to a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting. His campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But he got a leg-up from his fellow Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who maintained in an interview last Monday that Bennet’s tenure as an “independent Democrat” may help him stave off this year’s unfavorable political headwinds. “He’s obviously a Democrat, and he’s tied up with all the Democratic politics—it’s not a good year right now for Democrats—but I think he’ll be more independent of that than most,” Hickenlooper said.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.