DENVER, Colo.—Some Republican candidates are scrambling to revamp their campaign websites, updating their positions on abortion to get in line with the general electorate.
Not Joe O’Dea. That’s not because his staff hasn’t gotten around to it or because he refuses to bow to media pressure, but because the pro-choice Colorado Republican doesn’t think he has anything to run from in a year in which abortion has become a central campaign issue.
O’Dea may be the most disciplined Republican running for Senate this year. At times, his straightforward messaging borders on boring. Yet in the current Republican Party environment, that may be a winning strategy, and Colorado is turning into a glimmer of hope for a party feeling less than ebullient about the prospects of recapturing the upper chamber.
"If any of the other candidates can learn something from me, it’s just stay disciplined," O’Dea told the Washington Free Beacon. "Stay on message and make sure we're delivering the message that’s gonna get us across the finish line."
A survey from the Republican Attorneys General Association finds O’Dea in a statistical tie with Sen. Michael Bennet (D.) in a state President Joe Biden won by 13 points. Few, if any, other Republicans running for office in a competitive district or state are in such a good position at the beginning of September.
Democrats know O’Dea’s campaign is resonating with voters. In what Politico described as a "panic," Democratic organizations spent millions of dollars in a desperate attempt to boost O’Dea’s former primary opponent—the state representative Ron Hanks, who boasted on the campaign trail that he was "100 percent pro-life" and rallied at the Capitol on Jan. 6—in the final weeks of the race.
The Democratic effort to nominate Hanks may backfire in the general election, as voters were inundated, in the race’s early days, with ads describing O’Dea as a moderate disloyal to former president Donald Trump. With O’Dea as a nominee, the race has shifted from "likely Democratic" to "lean Democratic," according to the Cook Political Report.
O’Dea’s message of shutting down illegal immigration, banning radical sex-ed in schools, and cutting spending does not differ much from the rest of the Republican Party field nationwide except on a single issue: abortion. O’Dea is pro-choice. He supports restrictions on abortion after 20 weeks, a practice embraced by many European countries.
At a candidate forum in Littleton last month, arch-conservatives sporting Trump T-shirts and "Let’s Go Brandon" signs appeared relatively unconcerned with those views. Their focus instead was on critical race theory, illegal immigration, and a stream of fentanyl flowing over the southern border.
One woman, who identified as Catholic, accused O’Dea during a question-and-answer session of being no different than Bennet on the issue of abortion. The audience was silent. A few rolled their eyes or shook their heads.
"I’m Catholic, I have my own faith. I really think my critics [on abortion] need to do the research," O'Dea told the woman. "Michael Bennet has come out and said he supports late term abortion, up to and including in the birth canal. I think that’s outrageous. I think that we need some balance. I’ve stated very early during the primary my stance on this and I’ve been for a mother’s right."
There’s a longstanding conviction among political operatives in Colorado that moderating on abortion could be the key to success for the Republican Party. Bennet has never cracked 50 percent in a race since he was appointed to the seat in 2009, and political operatives believe Republicans blew an opportunity the following year, when the Republican Party racked up long-shot victories in states across the country such as Massachusetts but not in Colorado.
A Colorado political operative working to help elect Republicans in the midterms pointed to the 2010 Republican Senate nominee, Rep. Ken Buck, who took a staunchly pro-life stance, including in the case of rape and incest—a view he broadcast on Meet the Press two weeks before the election and which Democrats drew attention to in the closing days of the race. Bennet then won with 48 percent of the vote, despite Buck leading by an average of 3 points in the polls just before the election.
The belief that Buck’s interview sunk his chances isn’t just held by Colorado’s moderate Republicans. "Social issues ... distracted" from the race, the then-president of FreedomWorks Matt Kibbe said just after the election.
It is also possible that Buck misread his own party’s electorate. Just 56 percent of Colorado Republicans polled in February, before the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, disagreed with the statement that "all Colorado women should have access to abortion care." An overwhelming majority of voters in the state, including a critical Republican-voting constituency—whites without a college degree—agreed.
Voters in Pueblo, Colo., a small city that sits in a rural district represented by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R.), were not animated by the abortion issue. All of those who spoke with the Free Beacon were open to voting for a Republican in November and said they were far more concerned about economic issues and Democratic prosecutors and judges letting criminals back on the street with light sentences.
"I’m not big on any of the politicians elected in the state right now. I mostly look at platforms and make a decision on who will do the best thing for the state," said Chris Diaz, a rancher in his 20s from a neighboring town who said he leans conservative. "I don’t take a hard position on abortion when deciding to vote, because I understand there are circumstances where it may be necessary. On the same side, I personally don’t agree with the practice."
Another woman, Angela Texo, said during a cattle auction at the Colorado State Fair that she was personally pro-life. But, Texo added, a candidate’s position on abortion wasn’t something she’s paying attention to during this election cycle.
"I don’t think abortion should be banned here," she said. "It’s just not something I really factor in when picking a candidate."
Views like these illustrate how describing the Colorado electorate is a challenge for many Republicans. Judging by presidential election results since 2008, the state is bluer than Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
But anyone who lives in the state knows that is far from the case. The governor, Jared Polis (D.), has broken with his party on issues related to COVID-19 and taxes. Most of the state remains rural, and many voters who moved to the Denver and Colorado Springs metropolitan areas from California left their home states to flee what they considered incompetent liberal governance.
Bennet is acutely aware of this, and his campaign’s central pitch is that he’s a centrist, rugged Coloradoan enjoying frontier life. He wants voters to forget his tremendous wealth, which has skyrocketed during his time in office, and his voting record—over 98 percent of the time with Biden—in a state suffering from a Biden hangover.
It is here, on the question of authenticity, where O’Dea may have the biggest advantage over his opponent. The adopted son of a police officer, O’Dea’s first job was as a union carpenter before he landed at Colorado State University on a scholarship. Then he dropped out to start his own construction company.
Bennet was born in New Delhi, India, to the life-long Democratic operative Douglas Bennet. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended the exclusive St. Albans School before graduating from Wesleyan University and Yale Law School.
After law school, Bennet worked for Ohio governor Richard Celeste, a former colleague of his father. He later served in the Clinton administration before cashing out as a managing director at Anschutz Investment Company. His net worth is estimated to be in the tens of millions.
That privileged background, O’Dea says, has ended up costing Colorado. Bennet hasn’t cut the same figure as moderate Democrats such as Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) or Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) or managed to extract concessions from the White House and party leadership on major legislation. "Bennet should have made his Senate vote count for Colorado," O’Dea told the Free Beacon. "He waits and asks Joe Biden which vote he should take and then rubber-stamps the agenda. And that’s a problem and that’s why I’m going to get elected here."
Unlike candidates who have felled Republican hopes in years past—there’s unfortunately an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to "Rape and pregnancy statement controversies in the 2012 United States elections"—O’Dea has avoided cringe-inducing soundbites.
He speaks in plain English. "We got fentanyl killing our kids," and, "We need to complete the wall" are the sorts of things you’ll hear O’Dea tell voters on the campaign trail. O’Dea’s remarks don’t cause voters to raise their eyebrows in confusion at references to buzzwords or ideological concepts found on Twitter or niche policy journals.
As the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund pulls spending plans from Arizona over concerns the Republican nominee is not electable, there are rising hopes among Colorado Republicans that national groups could begin spending big for O’Dea. For now, the O’Dea campaign is focused on retail politics.
"We’ve built a huge coalition across the state. We’ve got Trump Republicans, we've got GOP Republicans, we’ve got the unaffiliated, and we’ve got some really disenchanted Democrats that are mad at their party for all these policies," O’Dea said in Littleton. "I want to do what’s right for Colorado."