The big new player in Colorado’s Senate GOP primary? Democratic groups

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea speaks at a Western Conservative Summit forum on Friday, June 3, 2022.

In a move that may signal concerns about Sen. Michael Bennet’s re-election chances, at least two Democratic-aligned groups are getting involved in the Republican primary.

ProgressNow Colorado announced Wednesday it will launch a campaign against businessman Joe O’Dea, the more moderate GOP candidate in the race. 

The group held a rally at the state capitol to unveil its “No Way O’Dea” campaign, in which it argues the candidate hasn’t been straightforward with the electorate. 

“Coloradans want candidates who are clear on where they're at, particularly with regard to abortion rights and … with regard to whether or not they're bought into Donald Trump's big lie or not,” said Sara Loflin, the executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, in announcing the campaign.

She said the group plans to hold more media events and potentially send out mailers to voters. 

O’Dea and his GOP opponent, Ron Hanks differ on the issues of election integrity and abortion. O’Dea has said that Biden was legitimately elected, while Hanks, who attended the Jan. 6th pro-Trump rally in Washington D.C., has made false claims about election integrity a centerpiece of his time at the statehouse.

On abortion, O’Dea has said he supports allowing the procedure early in pregnancy, but not taxpayer funding for it, while Hanks opposes it without any exception including for the life of the mother. 

ProgressNow alleges O’Dea has been unclear on his stance on abortion especially.

“He now says that he supports Roe-v.-Wade, but also says he would vote in the U.S. Senate to confirm judges who would repeal Roe,” said Loflin. “We've seen this song and dance before, in 2014, Cory Gardner said and did many of the same things. And then he went and voted in favor of horrible devastating policies.” 

Multiple groups jump into the race

The ProgressNow event came on the same day a different organization, Democratic Colorado, started running a television ad focused on Hanks’ conservative credentials. 

“How conservative is Ron Hanks?” asks the ad’s narrator. “Hanks was rated one of the most conservative members in the statehouse. He says Joe Biden’s election was a fraud. Hanks wants to ban all abortions and he wants to build Trump’s border wall. Hanks even sponsored a bill that would allow concealed carry with no permits. Ron Hanks: too conservative for Colorado.”

According to Medium Buying, a Republican media strategy company hired by the O’Dea campaign, the group has bought nearly $1 million worth of broadcast spots over six days in the media markets for Denver, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction. 

At that volume of ads, it will also deliver a much needed influx of publicity for Hanks who is the financial underdog in the race. According to FEC filings, Hanks has $57,000 to spend, while O’Dea has $1.4 million.

“Obviously it's gonna create some more name recognition because he didn't have any before,” said Republican state Rep. Colin Larson who has endorsed O’Dea in the race but isn’t working for the campaign.

Also this week, mailers blasting O’Dea for supporting Biden’s infrastructure bill and for previously donating to Bennet and “gun control advocate John Hickenlooper” arrived in some GOP primary voters’ inboxes. The message also highlights that Ron Hanks won top billing at the state GOP assembly (O’Dea petitioned onto the ballot). 

O’Dea campaign spokesman Sage Naumann said the mailer was sent to the homes of Republican voters and doesn’t include any information about which group is behind it, so they aren’t sure who sent it. But Naumann believes all of these efforts are linked.

“We know that Ron [Hanks] doesn't have the money for it,” said Naumann. “The timing of this press conference happening on the same exact day as the first mailer going out and the first TV ad running seems to be a little too coincidental.”

O’Dea’s campaign said these are messages that could resonate with GOP primary voters in two ways — attacks that highlight Hanks’ conservative record could bring out more of the base for the state representative, while efforts to make O’Dea look inconsistent might keep more moderate unaffiliated voters from supporting him.

Ad campaigns met with criticism

A candidate or party trying to pick their opponent is not a new tactic; earlier this year the Democrat running for governor in Pennsylvania spent big on ads in the GOP primary, arguably helping to boost the far right candidate to victory.

Rep. Larson was quick to blast the Democratic-funded efforts in Colorado as a “cynical ploy” to meddle in the GOP primary.

“I think people just need to be aware. When they're seeing these ads, they've gotta ask themselves, ‘why are Democrats spending a million dollars to help a radical insurrectionist, a do-nothing candidate against Joe O’Dea?’ I think they’re smart enough to see through it and think, oh, you know what? It's because [Democrats] are scared for Michael Bennet.”

Former Republican Governor Bill Owens said it’s clear that Democrats see Hanks as the weaker candidate in the general election.

“Democrats should make their own decisions in their primaries and Republicans should make our own decisions in ours,” Owens told CPR News. As for helping a candidate win the other party’s nomination: “I just don't think it would be the right thing to do.”

Former Democratic state lawmaker Dan Grossman also weighed in critically on Twitter. He said he had no idea if Democrats were helping Hanks, but if so, “it is harmful to democracy.”  

“Americans who value the rule of law, regardless of party and partisan advantage, should ensure that seditionists like Hanks never see the ballot as a major party nominee,” he wrote.

However, Alan Franklin, the political director of ProgressNow defended going after O’Dea and not Hanks. Voters, he said, will have no trouble finding Hanks’ record on the issues.

“He's very clear about it. So the duplicitous component of this that we worry about with O'Dea just isn't there,” said Franklin.

Andrew Kenney and CPR News intern Will Cornelius contributed to this report.