- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2022

DENVERSenate candidate Joe O’Dea rolled the dice when he publicly defied former President Donald Trump, but a high-risk, high-reward wager may also represent the only play for the Republican newcomer to win on Nov. 8.

Mr. O’Dea pledged to “actively campaign” against Mr. Trump in 2024, prompting the ex-president to swing back by calling him “this RINO character.”

The move undoubtedly alienated some Trump supporters, but Mr. O’Dea, who has already staked out a moderate stance on abortion, is betting that any Republican votes he loses will be more than augmented by the unaffiliated voters who now make up 46% of the blue state’s electorate.

About 57% of those independents cast ballots in this year’s Republican primary. Colorado GOP strategist Dick Wadhams predicted that they will support Republicans in the general election “if those candidates are not associated with the stolen-election conspiracy theory” advanced by Mr. Trump.

“I know Joe will be criticized by a lot of Trump supporters, but he has to make it definitively clear that he does not endorse that and that he’s making a play for unaffiliated voters. He’s got to,” Mr. Wadhams said. “Republicans only represent 23% of the electorate now. You can debate whether he should have been that strong or not, but I think that overall, it was the right thing for him to do.”

A successful construction company owner, Mr. O’Dea is increasingly being viewed as a sleeper candidate with a path to an upset victory over Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, which would also be a sharp reversal of the GOP’s waning fortunes in Colorado.

So far, Mr. Bennet looks like the way to bet. He leads in every poll by margins ranging from 6 to 10 percentage points in his quest for a third Senate term. The Cook Political Report ranks the race as “leans D,” while the University of Virginia Center for Politics sees the contest going “likely D” on its Sabato’s Crystal Ball page.

Mr. Bennet is also expected to handily win the fundraising battle. By late September, his campaign had raised $19.9 million to the O’Dea camp’s $6.4 million, according to Colorado Public Radio.

The incumbent received a boost last week when President Biden announced the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, a World War II-era military installation in Leadville, a designation long sought by Mr. Bennet.

Even so, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted in an Oct. 2 op-ed that there was “a real possibility Joe O’Dea will be the big surprise winner in Colorado on Nov. 8,” citing Mr. Bennet’s 98% voting record with Mr. Biden.

As in the rest of the country, Mr. Biden is unpopular even in liberal-leaning Colorado. His approval rate is 44% in Colorado, compared to 47% who disapprove, according to Civiqs’ online survey of registered voters.

Also buoying the hopes of Republicans is what analysts describe as a brewing red wave.

After trailing Democrats last month, Republicans have led in every poll of the generic congressional vote since Oct. 9, according to the polling tracker at Real Clear Politics, as issues such as inflation, the economy and crime leapfrog the abortion issue in voter issue surveys.

Last week, Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC connected with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, put $1.25 million into the Colorado race, a sign that national Republicans believe Mr. O’Dea’s independent streak will appeal to voters.

The Bennet campaign and pro-Democrat PACs have hammered Mr. O’Dea on abortion, even though the Republican broke with his party by supporting abortion before fetal viability, or about five months, with exceptions for rape, incest and medical necessity.

“My dad supports a woman’s right to choose,” Taylor O’Dea, the candidate’s daughter, says in a television ad. “My Joe, Joe O’Dea, will work with anyone to get America moving forward again.”

Mr. Bennet has run ads featuring Colorado pro-choice women criticizing Mr. O’Dea and saying that he supported Mr. Trump‘s conservative Supreme Court nominees.

“Michael Bennet has always fought to protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, but Joe O’Dea opposes the law protecting abortion access in Colorado,” says one of the women in the ad released in August.

For Democrats, however, there are signs that the abortion issue, which shot to the forefront after the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson overturning Roe v. Wade, is running out of steam.

“The effect of the Dobbs decision has really slowed, and with these increasing reports of inflation and the economy and then I’ll throw in crime, especially here in Colorado, I think it definitely makes O’Dea competitive to win this thing,” said Mr. Wadhams.

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said that Democrats “have put everything, including these independent operations, into abortion.”

“Well, abortion is an issue that decays quickly. It turns over,” said Mr. Ciruli, director of the University of Denver’s Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research. “People get tired of it. And now the economy is the big nasty issue.”

As a result, he said, “there’s a sense, including in the O’Dea race, that the Democrats are going to have to revise their strategy for these last few weeks. They’re going to need to change themes or step it up, because that’s an advantage for him at this point.”

He compared the race to the 2014 Senate contest in which Democratic Sen. Mark Udall placed an enormous emphasis on women’s issues, earning the nickname “Mark Uterus,” and ultimately lost to Republican Cory Gardner.

“Mark Udall, that was the only issue he played, and by Oct. 1, the national tide that was helping Cory pulled forward, and he eked it out. Is that happening here? I don’t know,” Mr. Ciruli said. “But that’s a Democratic concern.”

Ramsey Touchberry contributed to this story.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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