On a sunny afternoon in Pueblo recently, a crowd of about three dozen people braved broiling temperatures to meet their U.S. Senator in a residential cul de sac.
Instead of using the chairs set up in the middle of the street, the crowd — with Sen. Michael Bennet in the middle — retreated to the welcome shade of a nearby driveway.
“Appreciate you letting us use your shade,” Bennet joked to the homeowner, who even moved his car to make more room.
Bennet is seeking a third term in office. If he wins, he’d become the state’s longest-serving senator in decades. But this could be one of the toughest runs of his career.
His Republican opponent, first-time candidate Joe O’Dea, is running a strikingly different campaign than many other GOP Senate candidates around the country. He’s emphasizing his moderate credentials, which include support for legal abortion up to 20 weeks and his desire for someone other than Donald Trump as his party’s presidential nominee in 2024.
In 2010 — another midterm in which a Democratic president helped drive Republican turnout — Bennet eked out a 30,000 vote win over Republican Ken Buck. In 2016, he beat out Republican Darryl Glenn by 6 points, with 50 percent of the total vote. And while Colorado’s demographics have trended more blue since then, Bennet faces national headwinds; historically the party in power loses seats in the midterm.
“I think it will be a tough cycle. I’ve said that all the way along,” Bennet said after a campaign event in Glenwood Springs. “I always run like I’m 20 points behind, and that’s what I’m doing right now. That’s what this looks like.”
A statewide barnstorming, complete with tough questions
Bennet spent a good chunk of the congressional August recess barnstorming across the state — Pueblo and Denver, Montrose and Ridgeway, Eage and Glenwood Springs, just to name a few of the communities where he’s talked to people and tried to energize them to vote come November.
Along the way, he’s gotten an earful. The pain of inflation and fears for the economy are still top of mind for many, but Bennet got a range of questions at his campaign events, from climate change and protecting public lands to immigration reform and the state of America’s democracy.
Bennet seems to relish the campaign trail –— taking more questions even as his staff tries to move him on to the next event.
“I love this. This is the part of the campaign that you dream of,” he said, “the ability to be able to spend time in rural parts of Colorado and urban parts of Colorado, all over the state campaigning, campaigning, campaigning. That’s what I’m going to do until this election is decided.”
Bennet’s message on the trail is focused on the economy and recent legislative wins Democrats managed to get through the 50-50 Senate: bipartisan efforts like the bills on infrastructure, gun safety, semiconductor manufacturing and postal reform, and party priorities like the Inflation Reduction Act and the American Rescue plan.
“It’s just a record of achievement that we’ve not seen before in the last decade or so and that is resonating with people,” Bennet said. “And people are showing up and are excited and feel like progress is finally being made.”
A different kind of challenger
Republican challenger O’Dea, however, is banking that political disenchantment and economic discontent might put an end to Democrats statewide winning streak. A self-made businessman with no government experience or legislative record, O’Dea is running on a message that he’ll put country over party, something he hammers his opponent on.
“Bennet has been Biden's rubber stamp since he hit that office,” O’Dea said at a GOP press conference in August, highlighting Bennet’s support for the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan that passed last April. “That's got us at 9.1 percent inflation. Record gas prices, record crime here in Colorado, those are all things that are the responsibility of the Democratic policies that have been imposed on our state. And I aim to change that.”
CPR News did not attend an O’Dea campaign event, despite our requests.
Both candidates were on hand for a groundbreaking ceremony for a project to reconnect the Colorado River at Windy Gap Reservoir in Grand County last month. Bennet pushed the federal government to contribute about $14 million to the project, about half its overall cost. O’Dea’s company won the contract to do the work there.
More than one person thought it was a little awkward to see both men there — Bennet in the front row and his opponent back in the audience — but O’Dea dismissed that idea, saying, “this is about the project, we need to move Colorado forward. We get projects like this across the finish line. Everybody wins.”
Discontent with Democrats, distrust of Republicans
Polling on the Senate race is a bit all over the map; a recent poll from a Republican firm found the two men are running dead even, while one aligned with Democrats gave Bennet a double-digit advantage.
Viola Eggert, a registered Republican in Jefferson County, is concerned about inflation, the border and crime and plans to cast her vote for O’Dea.
“Republicans are generally conservative. They’re not into higher taxes and hopefully most of them are pro-life,” she said. Asked what she thought of O’Dea’s support for keeping abortion legal up to 20 weeks, she said she was okay with it. “If he’s the Republican candidate, I will support him.”
But O’Dea will also need unaffiliated voters — like Frankie Martinez of Pueblo — to help him unseat Bennet.
Martinez is worried about rising costs as well as abortion access, and unhappy with Biden’s tenure.
“I think the Democrats act weak. I think the Republicans act like bullies. I like the middle ground,” she explained.
She did some research on O’Dea and likes his stance on fiscal responsibility, and he meets her litmus test in that he seems to support abortion rights and is not pro-Trump. A voter like Martinez should be a prime opportunity for O’Dea. But as of now she plans to vote for Bennet. She mentioned O’Dea’s stance on guns, her concerns about climate change and ultimately that she thinks the Democratic party, more than the GOP, “puts people over profits.”
Still, it’s early in the campaign season and much can change between now and Nov. 8.
An uneven financial playing field
Bennet has a huge financial advantage in the race, with almost 10 times as much cash on hand as O’Dea according to the last filing. And while the GOP Senate campaign arm has put about a quarter million dollars into the race, it still pales in comparison to the millions the group has spent in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Georgia. (Although in August, the GOP campaign arm also cut ad spending in some of those states.)
But money might not be O’Dea’s biggest hurdle to winning; for some voters, it may just be the R after his name on the ballot.
“I used to be a Republican, because I was always strong on defense,” said Jeffery Smith, a Lakewood resident who recently switched his affiliation to Democratic. “But no, I could never vote for a Republican ever again in my life.”
Smith’s disaffection comes down largely to Donald Trump and the party’s continuing embrace of the former president, who lost Colorado by more than 13 points.
It was a hesitation CPR News heard from numerous moderate Democrats and unaffiliated voters, that even if they might want to give O’Dea in particular a chance, they are more concerned about boosting the party he belongs to.
The big question of Colorado’s Senate election might not be if O’Dea can outrun Bennet, but if he can outrun the concerns moderate voters have about the Republican Party.
One thing is certain, Coloradans can expect to hear more from both candidates as Election Day approaches.
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