Is Republican Joe O’Dea a moderate? His background and stances on issues from abortion to guns and taxes

Andrew Kenney/CPR News
GOP Senate candidate Joe O’Dea declares victory at his primary election night party, June 28, 2022.

GOP Senate candidate Joe O’Dea, 60, is a businessman with no prior legislative experience, and that’s exactly how he’s pitching himself to voters: as a political outsider who will put country over party in what he has described as a “broken” Washington, D.C.

Congress is “not addressing the needs of working Americans. And, if they are, they’re pretty slow to react,” O’Dea said. “I love this country and we need representation that can say ‘enough is enough.’ And that’s what they’re getting when they elect me.”

He faces incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet this November.

O’Dea was adopted as a newborn and raised in southeast Denver by a police officer father and a stay-at-home mother. O’Dea said his family wasn’t particularly political when he was growing up — he didn’t go with his parents to their polling place or ever canvas for a candidate.  

Much of his adult life has been focused on business. O’Dea attended Colorado State University but dropped out to focus full-time on a construction company he started while in school. Thirty-four years later, that firm, Concrete Express, Inc. (CEI), employs about 300 people. It’s headquartered at Mile High Station, an event venue O’Dea owns near Empower Field.

It was the construction industry that led O’Dea to politics.

“The first time I was really involved — I went to a legislative meeting for the Colorado Contractors Association back in about 1996,” the candidate recalled. “So I started getting into, how’s this going to affect my business? It was a very good learning experience.”

If elected, O’Dea would be the first person Colorado has sent to the Senate without any prior public sector or political experience since Eugene Millikin in the 1940s. (Bennet had not held any previous elected office when he was appointed in 2010, but worked as Superintendent of Denver Public Schools and served as chief of staff for two years to then-Mayor John Hickenlooper.)

Social issues vs. kitchen-table concerns

O’Dea has drawn national attention for rejecting false claims of fraud in the 2020 election and taking more moderate positions on issues like immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion, compared to many other Republican senatorial candidates or even sitting Colorado GOP congressional members.

O’Dea said he doesn't want either President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump to run for office in 2024. O’Dea would not say if he would vote for Trump if he is the party’s nominee in 2024.

The candidate has called for greater security along the southern border, particularly to combat drug trafficking. He also said he would support a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, who were illegally brought to the United States as children. Efforts to grant them legal status have been stopped by many in the Republican caucus

O’Dea also has said he would support codifying recognition of same-sex marriages at the federal level — another priority that has not gained enough traction with Republicans to pass the Senate.

On the issue of abortion, O’Dea has been vocal in his support for legal abortion up to 20 weeks, or later in cases of rape, incest and the health of the mother. He has said he voted for a 22-week abortion ban when it was on Colorado’s ballot in 2020 (voters overall rejected it). And O’Dea also said he would have confirmed Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, who ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Meanwhile, O’Dea has tried to focus the campaign on issues like inflation, high gas prices and crime. He argues that his business background and his working-class roots would help him get things done on those issues.

“I can tell you that nothing gets done unless two parties can come to an agreement,” O’Dea said. “And so I'll take those skills, and I'm gonna use them in Washington to convince people that, ‘Here, I've got some ideas on how we do this.’ I'll listen — I'm a very good listener; You need to be respectful, as well.”

O’Dea has tried to walk a fine line by attempting to not alienate GOP-base voters, while still holding positions that could help him win over the wider electorate. This is something Republicans have failed to do in a major statewide race in almost a decade. 

“We got a lot of issues here in Colorado that people want to address,” he said. And while he knows that some people want to focus on social issues like abortion, “most people want to talk about how we’re going to fix this economy.”

But that might not be enough to appeal to the voters O’Dea would need to win, especially in the wake of overturning Roe, the Jan. 6th riot and the possibility of another Trump run. The race has national implications: The U.S. Senate is evenly split, so a single senator could make the difference.

Despite his relatively moderate tone and past donations to candidates from both parties, O’Dea has always been a Republican: His first vote was for Ronald Regan. He says that true conservatism is about a “small, efficient government” that does the basic things “we need it to do, that it was designed to do.” 

He said the government should focus on funding for the police, which the federal government helps provide through grants, as well as for the military, infrastructure and a more limited social safety net.

O’Dea said he believes the government should help with medical care for those who can’t otherwise afford it, but should not provide more general or permanent support. “To pay people to sit at the house and not work, that’s not my idea of welfare.” (Many of the largest social safety net programs, such as food stamps or TANF, the current incarnation of welfare, have work requirements for recipients.)

Asked about his opponent, Sen. Bennet’s signature issue — expanding the Child Tax Credit — O’Dea said he supports the idea, but only for households with lower incomes. Under the temporary pandemic expansion of the policy, the amount of the credit increased and families could get it monthly. Families making up to $150,000 or single filers making up to $75,000 could claim the full child tax credit. That expansion expired in April.

And while O’Dea said his company offers paid family and medical leave, he was noncommittal on whether Congress should institute a nationwide policy to guarantee paid time off for pregnancy and other family medical issues. “I don’t know that we want to make that a permanent thing,” he said.

O’Dea also said he would not have supported the bipartisan gun safety law that passed in Congress in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting

“I didn't like that law. I don't believe we need more laws here in Colorado. We already have a red flag [law]. We didn't need it here,” O’Dea told CPR’s Colorado Matters. “We haven't enforced our laws, so until we start enforcing the ones that are on the books, I don't see a point in adding more.”

He has said he does not want to see the Biden administration act unilaterally on parts of the Colorado public lands bill known as the CORE Act, something Bennet and Sen. John Hickenlooper are calling for. The CORE Act has four provisions that would place added protections on more than 400,000 acres of public lands.

As for the rise in inflation, O’Dea sees it as a result of government spending and the Federal Reserve being “asleep at the wheel.” Some economists have said the Federal Reserve was slow to raise interest rates, an economy-cooling strategy that the institution is now using aggressively.

“We need to cut big government back. We need to return our spending levels to pre-COVID. There’s no reason to keep some of these programs in place for COVID,” O’Dea said. 

The rise in inflation is happening across the globe and is due to several factors, including government spending, supply chain issues, rise in demand after the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Most analysts have kept the seat in the Democratic column, with many polls showing Bennet in the lead. One Republican poll, however, put O’Dea neck-and-neck with Bennet.

O’Dea also lags behind Bennet when it comes to campaign cash. Bennet had just over $8 million dollars on hand this summer, while O’Dea had just over $800,000 at the time. National Republicans have invested some money into his race, but not anywhere near as much as in the battleground states.