Senate GOP leaders weigh whether to roll dice on Colorado underdog’s campaign
From Arizona to Georgia, GOP candidates backed by former President Donald Trump have floundered, putting Mitch McConnell’s quest to take back the Senate majority at serious risk.
Now, top Republicans are weighing whether to pour huge sums of money in the final months of the 2022 campaign to lift Joe O’Dea, the Colorado Senate GOP nominee who has kept his distance from Trump and survived a Democratic attempt to meddle in his primary.
The pressure campaign for GOP groups to get involved is growing louder, as Republicans face crucial decisions over spending their limited resources.
“Every election there is a surprise – that’s here – with your good man,” said former President George W. Bush’s adviser Karl Rove at a private Denver fundraiser this week, according to a person familiar with the matter.
But so far, the big-spending GOP outside groups are uncertain whether O’Dea can knock off incumbent Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet – and whether their money should be spent elsewhere.
So far, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has not reserved future advertising in Colorado, after spending just $241,000, according to AdImpact data.
McConnell’s powerful super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, has yet to spend money there but is “keeping an eye on the race” and “impressed” with O’Dea’s performance, the group’s spokesman said. The group recently announced it would spend $28 million in Ohio, and cut millions in Arizona, committing to defend J.D. Vance in an increasingly red state rather than help Blake Masters in a battleground, as both Trump-endorsed candidates struggle.
Unlike other Senate GOP candidates in crucial contests, O’Dea, a construction company owner who has self-funded part of his campaign, says he doesn’t want Trump to run again.
“I think the country is ready to move on,” said O’Dea in an interview.
When asked if he would vote for Trump as the nominee in 2024, O’Dea told CNN he wasn’t going “to make that hypothetical decision.”
“I might campaign very strongly for some of the other Republicans that I feel are very talented, and then we’ll have to see who’s on the ballot,” O’Dea said.
That strategy might be necessary for a Republican to beat a Democrat in a state Trump lost by 13.5 points just two years ago. But as O’Dea focuses on issues like rising prices and crime, he sidesteps other questions about his party’s leader, including one on if he wants Trump’s endorsement and another on whether he’d vote for Trump as the 2024 GOP presidential nominee.
“The only endorsement I’m worried about is the voters of Colorado,” said O’Dea to the first question.
Bennet, who declined to be interviewed, is trying to tie O’Dea to Trump, noting his support for the former President in 2016 and 2020, and how he could potentially vote for him again in 2024.
“I don’t think Coloradans are going to find that somebody with that record of siding with Trump, McConnell and being that far right, is the right choice for Colorado,” Bennet campaign manager Justin Lamorte told CNN.
“That’s incredibly damaging,” he added.
Bennet, too, is distancing himself from his own party’s unpopular leader, trying to turn the race onto his own record. President Joe Biden’s national approval rating fell underwater a year ago, as the US withdrew from Afghanistan, and has stuck around 40% all year, as consumer prices rose.
“The President has important work to do to help working people throughout the country,” Lamorte said. “So we don’t need Biden to come out here to campaign for Michael in November.”
“He has a great record to run on,” added Lamorte of Bennet.
O’Dea said, “I hope Biden comes out and campaigns, that’s what we need to see.”
The Colorado Democrat has almost always voted with Biden in the 50-50 Senate. In 2021, he supported wide-ranging legislation that temporarily expanded the child tax credit, and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. In 2022, Bennet voted for bills lowering health care costs and drastically reducing carbon emissions, crafting tougher gun background checks, boosting the domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry and helping veterans affected by burn pits and other toxic substances.
But Bennet has occasionally separated himself from Biden, voting in March to ax a federal requirement to wear masks on public transportation, and chiding the president for not further targeting its student loan forgiveness plan.
Two of Bennet’s television ads feature direct appeals to the large percentage of unaffiliated voters in his state, filming him fly fishing and hiking. In one, a guide who’s “not a Democrat” touts the senator’s efforts to protect public lands. In another, Bennet asserts he’s against members of Congress becoming lobbyists and trading stocks, and that his campaign is “not taking a dime in corporate PAC money.”
Dick Wadhams, a veteran Colorado Republican strategist, said that the state became more liberal over the past decade, as people moved to it in droves.
In August 2012, there were nearly 2.3 million active voters; about 36% were Republican, 32% were Democratic and 31% were unaffiliated, according to the Colorado secretary of state’s office. A decade later, there were almost 3.7 million active voters; about 45% were unaffiliated, 28% were Democratic and 25% were Republican.
With several, contested statewide positions on the ballot in 2022, Wadhams said, “I think this election is going to answer the question: ‘Is Colorado, a blue state, period?’”
Asked if he thought O’Dea would win, Wadhams said, “Actually, at this moment, I do.”
O’Dea told CNN his campaign is “directed right at Michael Bennet,” focused on issues like rising crime and gas prices. In the past ten weeks, average gas prices in Colorado have sharply decreased from $4.92 a gallon to $3.80, according to AAA, but that is still higher than a year ago, when a gallon was about $3.62.
“We’re talking about the things that matter,” said O’Dea.
O’Dea’s campaign has received serious attention from top establishment Republicans, including McConnell, over the last few months.
“I’m certainly going to be telling people that this is a race where Republicans have a realistic chance of picking up the Senate seat,” said Gale Norton, who served as Interior secretary in the George W. Bush administration.
But the Colorado GOP nominee faces a tough test on abortion, as liberal voters rebel against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade after nearly 50 years.
O’Dea has also taken a more moderate position on abortion rights than other Republicans, telling CNN that he opposed the Supreme Court’s ruling in June. But O’Dea voted in 2020 to ban abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy, and acknowledged that he would’ve voted for the conservative justices who decided the case. O’Dea said he also would’ve voted for Obama nominee Elena Kagan, a liberal justice who dissented, as he says he wants to end the “blood sport” over the Supreme Court confirmation process.
“I wouldn’t have overturned Roe v. Wade,” said O’Dea. “I didn’t think that was prudent. We need balance in our country.”
On whether he would have voted for Samuel Alito, the conservative justice who authored the controversial abortion decision, O’Dea said: “I would have.”
Bennet and Colorado Democrats have gone on the attack on abortion.
Alan Salazar, a veteran Colorado Democratic strategist, said that Bennet “doesn’t have to tap dance on that issue, unlike his opponent,” and that the abortion debate undermines O’Dea’s portrayal of himself as a moderate Republican.
“His first act, if he were to be elected, would be to get Mitch McConnell and a Republican majority, and I think people who are worried about moderation ought to worry about that,” Salazar said.
But key Democrats in Washington have contributed to O’Dea’s picture of himself as a middle-of-the road Republican.
During the Senate GOP primary, a Super PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer boosted a pro-Trump, election denier over O’Dea in attempt to pick a weaker general election opponent.
The group spent nearly $4 million helping O’Dea’s pro-Trump opponent, state Rep. Ron Hanks, who promoted the falsehood that Biden was unfairly elected in 2020.
“I’m sure that it tightened up the Republican primary a bit,” O’Dea said of the money the group spent. “It’s probably the best $10 million Schumer could have spent on my campaign.”
The Senate Majority PAC says that it was the appropriate strategy.
“National Republicans are now saddled with propping up a badly damaged candidate who is burning through cash and proving that he cannot be trusted to fight for Colorado values,” said Senate Majority PAC President JB Poersch.
O’Dea, meanwhile, has a tagline – “country over party” – plastered on his TV ad highlighting his background as a dishwasher and union carpenter who “worked his way up.”
“I don’t believe Biden should run again. I don’t believe Trump should run again,” O’Dea told CNN. “We can’t afford to tear the country apart. We need some leaders that’ll bring this country back together.”
In Washington, Democrats are keenly aware that the midterm environment can shift, and states that were once seen as outliers – like Colorado – could be in play.
“I always worry,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, a close Bennet ally and Hawaii Democrat. “It is absolutely too early to be overconfident about anything.”