Republican business owner and Senate candidate Joe O’Dea is focused on law enforcement and inflation in Colorado primary

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea speaks at a Western Conservative Summit forum on Friday, June 3, 2022.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea wants to see more money going toward law enforcement and to encourage more domestic drilling for fossil fuel to help ease the sting of inflation.

O’Dea, a construction business owner, hopes for the chance to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in the general election in November, but he still must face state Rep. Ron Hanks in the June 28 primary.

O’Dea spoke to Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield about a wide range of issues, including gun violence in schools, a conversation sparked by the school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., and a subsequent compromise on gun control legislation in the Senate. The compromise would give states money for mental health; close the “boyfriend loophole” that allowed some domestic abusers to buy firearms; and encourage states to pass red flag laws, similar to ones that already exist in Colorado. O’Dea said he would need to examine the details of the final bill before saying whether he approves, but he also wants to see a greater law enforcement presence in schools to protect students.

O’Dea also wants to increase domestic oil and gas production at home. He said that without a robust electric car infrastructure in place, the country cannot afford to cut off fossil fuel production, especially at current record-high gas prices.

O’Dea differs from his opponent on the issue of abortion. He does not believe in banning abortion early in pregnancy, and he believes that government shouldn’t be involved in a decision between a pregnant person and their doctor. But he does support limits like banning of public money going toward abortion or late-term abortions.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Joe, welcome to the program.

Joe O'Dea: Chandra, thanks so much for having me on today. I really appreciate being here with you. It's great to meet you.

Whitfield: Let's start with gun rights. The U.S. Senate right now is on the verge of passing bipartisan gun legislation. At the time of this interview, the final bill has not been written, but senators say it includes giving money to states to spend on red flag style laws, like we have here in Colorado, where someone can ask a judge to take guns from those who are a danger to themselves or others.

It is also said to include enhanced background checks and funding for school safety and mental health programs. What is your position on this compromise?

O'Dea: Well, it's encouraging to see people talking about some things that I've been talking about for quite a while. You can't legislate evil. Criminals get guns and then they do tragic things and they're sad. It's part of our society. We've got the school shootings going on, but in addition to that, we've got guns all over the United States. And some of the places with the most laws have the highest shooting rates.

Editor’s note: Asked for evidence to support this claim, an O’Dea spokesman said, “I’d take a guess and say cities such as Chicago?” In contrast, research from Stanford University has found that states “with strict gun laws have lower rates of gun deaths among children and teenagers,” and that children in the United States are “82 times more likely to die in our country of a firearm injury than in any other developed nation.” Another Stanford study found that background checks for gun buyers “could help reduce the frequency of mass shooting tragedies.” Research from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center indicates that places with more guns have more homicides. However, a paper in The Lancet found that state-specific laws are rarely associated with a reduction in firearm deaths, arguing that federal action would have a much greater effect.

O’Dea, continued: The one thing I do like about this legislation is they're beginning to talk about more cops. They're beginning to talk about mental health. I think those are the issues here that we need to embrace. I've been an advocate that we need cops in our schools; I think that's a must-have. I've also been an advocate that we've got to start doing more for mental health.

We need to start making sure that people are getting the help they need, but I'm also an anti-crime guy. I believe we need to put people away. If somebody's making a threat online, if somebody's doing something that would indicate that they're a problem, then we need to get them off the street.

I've also been an advocate for Laura Carno here in Colorado. She's running a program called FASTER that allows teachers that want to conceal-carry to get the right training; to train with their sheriff's department or their police department so they can be the first line of defense if somebody comes into these schools.

That's where I'm at with that. There's a lot of details that will have to come out for that bill before I could have an opinion on it, but generally speaking, we don't need more laws. What we need is more cops, and that's where I'm going to land.

Whitfield: What other ways would you like the federal government to address mass shootings? Is it just the cops in schools, or what other suggestions do you have?

O'Dea: I think we can start there and that's something we can do very quickly. If you look at our airports, they're fortified. If you look at our banks, they're fortified. We protect our money. We protect our travel now. I don't see why we can't protect our schools, [and have] more law enforcement around the schools.

Generally, I think we need more law enforcement, period. If you look at the 30-percent hike in crime that has occurred here in the last year and a half. A lot of it has to do with: we've defunded some of the police departments, we've demoralized them. We haven't given them the resources that they need.

In addition to that, we haven't held criminals accountable. We've got DAs that have lessened the penalties. Right now Colorado is leading the nation in auto theft, and that's because we're not holding these people accountable.

Whitfield: The bipartisan compromise on gun control needs 60 votes to overcome the filibuster. Some say the filibuster prevents the Senate from getting more done. Do you think it should be done away with?

O'Dea: No. I would never take the filibuster out. That's part of the guard that we have in place to make sure that we have a majority, and it gives the minority a voice.

Whitfield: If it remains, what can be done to ensure the Senate can get more done?

O'Dea: It means we have to have conversations; It means we have to have good ideas on both sides of an issue. And it means we need to work hard to find a compromise that moves our country forward. That's what it takes. It makes sure that we have good, thoughtful debate over any issue. I believe it's very much part of our constitution and should be left in place.

Whitfield: Now, onto abortion. You have said in the past that you don't support a total ban on abortion, including early in a pregnancy or for certain medical emergencies. With the Supreme Court predicted to overturn Roe v. Wade any day now, would you support a federal bill that ensures abortion access?

O'Dea: It would depend on the bill. Michael Bennet actually voted for Chuck Schumer's bill here a month ago. I thought that bill was reckless. It was abortion up to and including the day of birth. I disagree with that. I believe that we should have limits on late-term abortion.

Editor’s note: An Associated Press fact check found that abortions in the third trimester “are extremely rare” and “typically occur because of a signficant fetal abnormality.” Abortions late in pregnancy typically happen through induced labor, not surgical abortion, and happen when a fetus has a low probability of survival. 

O'Dea, continued: I believe we shouldn't use tax dollars. I believe we shouldn’t force religious hospitals to do a procedure they don't want to do. I believe we also should have parental notification, but I don't believe that we should have a total ban. I believe early on in the pregnancy, that [the decision to terminate a pregnancy] should be between a woman and her doctor and her conscience. That's her decision and our government shouldn't be involved in that.

Whitfield: I think you described it at the Western Conference as a decision between a person and their God.

O'Dea: I did. Government shouldn't be involved in that. If we want to make strides, if we want to end abortion, my thought is we need to do more for adoption. It's a deeply personal issue for me: I [was] adopted at birth. My mom and dad were so kind to take me in, but my biological mother must have been brave to, back in the '60s, to carry to term. I never did meet her, but I have a lot of respect for that. So I would advocate that we do more to make adoption easier here, whether it's tax credits, or whether funding for adoption.

Whitfield: As you mentioned, part of your personal story is that you are adopted and those who oppose abortion might argue that you are an example of why abortion should be illegal. What do you say?

O'Dea: I think early on in the pregnancy, there are two lives involved, so we need to have respect for both of those. That's not a decision that I think I should make for someone else. I'm going to stay where I'm at. I'm not going to budge. It's important to me.

Whitfield: Would you say your stance on abortion has evolved over the years?

O'Dea: My wife and I have prayed over it. We have just one child and we had a lot of issues trying to have a second child, and it gave us a perspective that maybe some other people don't have. So, I would say it's something that my wife and I have prayed over.

Whitfield: You've talked a lot on the campaign trail about inflation and voters have said consistently that their biggest concern this cycle is the rising cost of living. In fact, at the 2022 Western Conservative Summit you said you will, "prosecute the case against Biden and Bennet on inflation." What does that mean?

O'Dea: Well, look, everybody's talking about the price of gas. It's over $5.00 [per gallon] here in Colorado. Everybody's talking about the price of food, it's up 30 percent. There's a lot of things that aren't on the shelves right now. Everybody's talking about inflation, because it's affecting all of us.

Editor’s note: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported U.S. average food prices increased 10.1 percent from May 2021 to May 2022. However, some individual products are seeing sharper increases, like a reported 23-percent year-over-year gain for eggs and 15 percent increase for beef. Global food prices have exceeded 30 percent year-over-year growth recently, according to a U.N. metric.

O'Dea, continued: Families are having to start to make choices between things that they want to do and things that they have to pay for. And so it's the number-one issue; I believe that big government is responsible for it.

In my opinion, we need to reduce [government] spending to pre-COVID levels. The $1.9 trillion rescue plan that got put in place back a year ago in March has inflated everything. And a lot of that money is not done getting into the market, yet.

Editor’s note: Economists have also pointed to supply-chain disruptions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as primary causes of inflation, among others.  The federal government reports it has budgeted $4.6 trillion for COVID-19 responses, a figure that includes multiple packages. About 80 percent of that sum has been spent.

There's quite a bit of it that was appropriated, but hasn't been spent yet. We need to quit the spending. That's how you start to help get these prices under control. The second thing was, I believe it's time to overhaul the Fed — the Fed was asleep at the wheel. Those people that are there: if they were working for me, I'd have fired them.

Six months late, they came up with a new word that I had to go look up, called transitory inflation. A new word, right? They should have started to escalate the interest rates six months earlier than they did. Maybe they could have gotten ahead of this a little bit. 

The last thing is our oil and gas policies nationally and as a state. We're not letting people drill — which, anytime you stifle the supply, you're going to increase the price. That's what's going on right now. We've got to get these federal leases back to where good clean Colorado companies can drill for gas and oil here and go back to work. That's how you get in front of inflation. It's not that difficult.

Editor’s note: Amid a legal battle, the Biden administration recently has delayed decisions on new oil and gas projects on federal property, including in Colorado.

Whitfield: What can a single senator do about inflation?

O'Dea: A single senator can take some ideas to Washington on how we do the three things I just described, and start to build a team, start to build constituents that understand that this is how we're going to get in front of this inflation. That's what I'll do when I get there.

Whitfield: In one of your commercials, you say that you plan to "get Washington focused on working Americans." In that same ad, you also say that you will push for lower taxes, less regulation and an economic recovery that benefits working people. As senator, exactly how do you plan to accomplish all of that?

O'Dea: As I said, we need to return the spending to pre-COVID levels. We need to get that back into a balanced budget. I'll focus hard on a balanced budget. I'll focus on deregulation. I think that's the number-one thing crushing working Americans and businesses here in Colorado.

I spent my last 35 years in business, and I call it a death by a thousand cuts: Every day, there's some new regulation, whether it's at the local, the state or the federal level that has to do with either me and my business, or our employees. When you're constantly regulating things, that drives the cost of everything up. We need to focus on getting government out of the way so that our economy can flourish. I believe the more favorable you make it to work here in Colorado, in the United States, the more people will go to work. The entire revenue stream will grow because more people are back at work. So, that's how I'll attack it.

Whitfield: Before COVID, the budget was not balanced. Why do you specifically say pre-COVID levels?

O'Dea: Well, because a lot of COVID has caused some additional spending that we don't need to have anymore. We just need to end that. I'm going to be an advocate for a balanced budget. That's why I'm going to Washington. We need to get big government out of the way; We need to cut it back. That's how you help working Americans: They don't need more government, they need less.

Whitfield: The expanded Child Tax Credit was a pet project championed for years by current Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. It provided families up to $300 per child per month and it was estimated to have kept three million American children out of poverty. It has since expired, but Sen. Bennet is still working to make it permanent. Do you support the expanded Child Tax Credit?

O'Dea: I support the concept. I think the intent is good, but I don't support giving families that are making $200,000, $300,000 a year that kind of a child tax credit. I think we need to make it directed at lower income — those people that need it. I would advocate that if we do have a tax credit that it would go to people that have a need and not people of excess.

Whitfield: Is part of your concern that that tax credit would contribute to inflation?

O'Dea: It is. And it probably would, but if it was more directed at lower income, then it would have less of an effect.

Whitfield: Let's move on to climate change — something, as you know, that is at the top of mind for many Coloradans. You do not dispute the science of climate change, but you oppose the Democrats’ approach, calling it "top-down government mandates." Please explain what you mean by that.

O'Dea: Well, we need to be mindful that we can't cut off fossil fuels until we have an electrification system that's in place. And we don't have that. Out of the 1.8 million cars that are on Colorado roads owned by Colorado people, only 50,000 of those are electric.

Editor’s note: As of 2020, the estimated number of cars in Colorado was 1.6 million, however many personal vehicles are classified as trucks. Taken together, Colorado actually has 5.3 million vehicles registered as “private and commercial,” according to the Federal Highway Administration. Additionally, state figures show that there are 56,000 electric vehicles in the state.

O’Dea, continued: So for us to think that we can quit drilling, quit supplying oil and gas until we have an acceptable electric plan that's in place, that's clean, is kind of nonsense to me. When you talk to oil and gas people here in Colorado, we have the cleanest gas molecule in the world.

It makes absolutely no sense to me to not allow drilling here in Colorado, but to import from Venezuela or from Russia or some of these despots and dictators that are across the world. That makes absolutely no sense. It doesn't make sense for our climate either because the act of transporting actually puts more emissions than if we had it here. So, I think we just need to be smart about it. It's setting up a mandate to stop something before you have a plan to backfill, it doesn't make any sense to me at all.

Editor’s note: The Biden administration banned the import of Russian fossil fuels, although some of the country’s exports are still reaching the U.S. after going through other countries. The U.S. banned imports of Venezuelan oil in 2019, but now is reportedly loosening some restrictions that affect other countries' use of Venezuela’s exports — a sign that the administration is considering lifting the sanctions more broadly.

Whitfield: You have called on President Biden, as you said, to increase production of oil and gas at home. How do you square increased fossil-fuel production with the realities of climate change?

O'Dea: I think both are important, right? Nobody wants bad air, nobody wants dirty water, but there's balance to everything. I don't understand how Biden thinks that importing it from Venezuela, or from somewhere else to the United States, is cleaner than actually drilling here. We haven't changed the demand, but we're stifling the supply. 

In my mind, it's cleaner to have the good regulations that are over a lot of the oil and gas drilling where they make sure that it's clean. As opposed to in China or Asia, where they have no regulations at all. So I think if you stand back and look at my plan, it  would be better for climate change than what Biden's plan is.

Whitfield: How so?

O'Dea: Well, because you would be doing it here in the United States where you can control [production] and make sure that they're doing it correctly and they're not putting more emissions into our air. You can control it here, where you can't control it overseas. Venezuela doesn't have any regulations in place.

Whitfield: That’s a perfect segue into foreign policy. To date, the U.S. has given roughly $54 billion to Ukraine to aid the country in its efforts against Russia. Do you support that spending?

O'Dea: Well, first off, I support Ukraine. I think if you look at what the Ukrainian people have done defending their freedom, defending their country, it's been very inspiring. They have fought a good fight. I thought that Biden was asleep at the wheel on this. If he had taken some of the assets that we left in Afghanistan and given those to the Ukrainian people, it would have saved a lot of taxpayer money here and they would have gotten assets that they could use to defend their country.

That said, they passed, I believe, a $40 billion bill not too long ago. I thought that was excessive. I wouldn't have passed that large of a bill to help the Ukrainians. I also thought Senator Rand Paul was on the right track when he said we need oversight within the bill. There wasn't any oversight in the bill. I don't ever think you should go let people spend money without keeping track of it. That's part of the problems that we have here in the United States. So I do support Ukraine. I don't believe we need boots on the ground there, but we need to assist them.

Whitfield: You do not support sending U.S. troops to help Ukrainian forces?

O'Dea: No, not at this point. NATO can step in, they need to do their job. There's plenty of nations over there that are very close to this issue and they should be the ones supporting Ukraine, as well.

Whitfield: Is there any scenario in which you would support sending U.S. troops to Ukraine?

O'Dea: At this point, I don't see the need to do it, but things can change. So, I would leave the option open. Somebody has to make the decision when things happen.

Whitfield: Your opponent in the primary, Ron Hanks, has been a vocal proponent of the “Big Lie”: that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. But, you reject that. How do you plan to win over staunch conservatives who believe what you have described as “conspiracies” being pushed by others in the Republican Party?

O'Dea: Look, I've been consistent with my message. Biden's our president; He's a lousy president. I think he's doing a lousy job. Look at the inflation. Look at the status of crime here in the United States. Look at our border. Look at Ukraine. Look at Afghanistan. He's a lousy president and I've been an advocate of that. That's why I'm running: We need to put a stop to Biden's agenda, and how you do it is you replace a senator. 

I'm not looking backwards at what happened. What's important to working Americans here in Colorado, and across the country, is looking forward. It's making sure we get control on this inflation. It's reducing the price of gas. It's reducing the grocery bill. Making sure that we get things back on the shelves and getting our country moving forward.

Whitfield: Back to the issue of the border. At the 2022 Western Conservative Summit, you said you support building a wall and you said, “Just get a contractor.” Can you speak more on that?

O'Dea: We've already paid for many of the materials. They're stacked up sitting along the border and Biden's agenda came in and stopped the wall. We need to finish the wall so that we can protect our border. We've got almost two million illegals that have come across. We've got drug cartels that are pushing fentanyl straight up I-25. We've got human trafficking going on.

I've got guys that are here legally. They've been with me, some of them 20 years, and they've been working on green card visas. They're here legally, they're paying taxes and they can't get through the process of our immigration system. The second thing after you fix that border is to put a process in place that people can see so they can get their citizenship. Those are the things that I think we need to do with both the border and immigration.

Editor’s note: There were about 1.9 million apprehensions of people trying to illegally cross the southern border from February through December 2021, according to About half were expelled immediately, while others were sent into various legal proceedings or other routes.

Whitfield: Is the issue of the border a primary concern in Colorado?

O'Dea: It is. When you talk to people that work for me, they're worried about these cartels coming into their neighborhoods here. A lot of them moved from Mexico 20 to 30 years ago, and they're here legally. They're very concerned that these cartels are now moving into their neighborhoods here in Westminster, Thornton and Brighton. They're very concerned. So we need to get control of our border.

Whitfield: Briefly back to Trump. Would you accept an endorsement from him?

O'Dea: Look, I've been very, very vocal about who I want endorsements from and it's the Colorado voter. I'm focused on Colorado; I'm focused on Coloradoans. I'm not going to Mar-a-Lago to get Trump's endorsement, but I'm not going to Texas to get George W. Bush's either. I'm focused on Colorado. I want to let the Colorado voter weigh in on the Joe O'Dea campaign here.

Whitfield: In its endorsement, The Gazette newspaper describes you as having the potential to be incumbent Senator Michael Bennet's "worst nightmare," and Democratic-aligned groups like ProgressNow and Democratic Colorado are running campaigns to help your opponent win the Republican nomination. What do you make of that?

O'Dea: First off, it's criminal. The flyers that they have sent out: nobody has signed at the bottom as to who paid for them, and that's a violation of our federal election laws. I've sued the mail house that is sending these out, and I've also filed a grievance with the Federal Election Commission. We also sent letters to all of the DAs across the state asking for them to step in. I think the Democrats are worried about my candidacy. That's all I can say. If they're going to put $10 million into a race to make sure they can run against my opponent instead of me, I guess I probably got them worried.

Because, I'm talking about inflation, I'm talking about the price of gas, I'm talking about the 30-percent hike in crime and those are the things that Colorado voters are talking about today. And so I'm going to hold Michael [Bennet] accountable. I'm going to hold the policies accountable and I'm going to win this November. I'm fired up.

Whitfield: Now, your opponent has accused you of flip flopping. You endorsed the $1.1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan that passed the U.S. Senate with support from every Democrat and 19 Republicans and was signed by President Joe Biden. What is your response to that?

O'Dea: Well, I haven't flip flopped. I said when that bill came out that I would have voted for it. He left that off of the mailer though, he forgot to talk about the 19 Republicans that would have voted for it. Trump ran his campaign, and one of the things he was going to solve while he was in office was infrastructure. At the time Trump was in place, he would have spent more than the $1.2 trillion. The other thing people need to understand is that a majority of that $1.2 trillion is actually highway trust fund money. It's taxes that have been collected at the gas pump.  That's what pays for infrastructure. So he has distorted it, and I'm not going to back down. I still would have voted for the infrastructure plan.

Editor's note: In November 2020, Bloomberg reported that President Trump proposed a $1 trillion plan, and later a $1.5 trillion plan, with most of it coming from private investors, states and cities.

O’Dea, continued: I believe in a small, efficient government that supports law and order: our cops. It supports our military and it supports our assets. People in Colorado drive around roads that are 50 years old and some of them are in really bad shape. You can't turn your house over to your kids with a roof that leaks, you have got to fix the roof. So, I've been an advocate that we fix our infrastructure and I'll continue to be an advocate for that.

Whitfield: What news sources do you rely on?

O'Dea: I look at a lot of different things. I read different newspapers. I watch Fox, I watch a little bit of CNN, I watch channels 9, 7 and 4. In this day and age, you need to broaden your approach or you're going to get into an echo chamber that you can't get out of. So, I like a lot of reading.

Whitfield: As we wrap up on a lighter note, one of the questions we're asking candidates is to share the name of a book they're currently reading or one they have previously read that has had a great impact on their life. Who would that be for you?

O'Dea: I read a lot of “Western Horseman” magazine and I like the stories in there. A lot of them are about our culture and our past cowboy culture. Those are the type of articles that I enjoy reading.

Whitfield: Or, maybe you watch reality TV. [laughs]

O'Dea: No, not for me. But I'm a big Avs fan. I was at the previous Stanley Cup game, so I remember the energy that was in that building. It's going to be fun to watch these guys, hopefully they'll close out here in the next week and we'll have a Stanley Cup in Colorado.

Whitfield: Joe, thanks for joining us.

O'Dea: Chandra, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me on today and look forward to talking to you again after the primary.