The conventional political narrative around Colorado is that this onetime purple state now leans blue. And there’s plenty of evidence for that: Democratic presidential candidates have won the state in every election since 2008, Democrats have occupied the governor’s mansion since the 2006 election and the state is currently represented by two Democratic senators.
This year’s midterm elections were supposed to be favorable Republicans, as they usually are for the party not in the White House, but the GOP has seen once reachable Senate races in Arizona and Pennsylvania become more challenging — all while races in Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin remain close. In the midst of this, some GOP strategists and national leaders are hoping the Centennial State can become a battleground once again.
To be sure, FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 midterm election forecast gives incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet about a 9-in-10 chance of beating his Republican opponent, Joe O’Dea. And Colorado also hasn’t elected a Republican senator since 2014. (The time before that was in 2002.) But both parties are taking this year’s race seriously: In an interview with Politico, Bennet warned that “Colorado remains a swing state,” while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly assured Republicans recently that he’s “all in” on the race and lavished praise on O’Dea, whom he called “the perfect candidate” for the state.
There are many reasons why some prognosticators think Bennet might be in trouble. But arguably the biggest reason why — despite FiveThirtyEight’s polling average giving Bennet a nearly 9-percentage-point advantage — is that O’Dea has largely avoided the not-so-great headlines that have plagued other Republicans in races that were initially viewed as easy grabs for the GOP.
Take someone like Herschel Walker, the Republican challenging Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia. Walker is under scrutiny for allegedly not disclosing all of his children, despite repeatedly criticizing absent Black fathers. He’s also under fire for exaggerating his business and academic records. Meanwhile, in Arizona, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters carries his own problematic baggage: He once blamed Black people for gun violence in the U.S., and has promoted the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, the debunked belief advanced by Republicans who claim that Democrats support more immigration to “replace” white American voters. And in Pennsylvania, Republican candidate Mehmet Oz has struggled to gain traction after accusations of carpetbagging and being out of touch with voters.
In other words, a spate of controversial or disliked candidates might cost Republicans the Senate — a reality that even McConnell has acknowledged. There are signs, too, that the party is starting to slowly pull its support for some scandal-ridden Republicans. In late August, there were reports that the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC aligned with McConnell, planned to scrap about $8 million worth of ads in Arizona throughout September, delaying its entry into the race until early October. This might be one of the clearest signals that the party is pivoting its resources to states where candidate quality is less of an issue.
That’s why states like Colorado might appeal to the GOP, even if the odds are currently stacked against them.
One reason why Bennet might be a weak candidate is that he didn’t clear the majority-vote threshold in either 2010 or 2016. That’s not necessarily surprising in the 2010 election, given the two-term senator was originally appointed to the Senate by then-Gov. Bill Ritter in 2009 and senators who are first appointed to office often have weaker electoral track records. But what’s worse for Bennet is that he also had a closer-than-expected race against Republican Darryl Glenn in 2016 — despite outspending his opponent more than 4-to-1.
“Candidates who don’t get people excited and don’t make voters passionate don’t get a lot of support. And I just don’t think Sen. Bennett gets people excited,” said Sara Hagedorn, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
Bennet’s favorability numbers in the state also leave much to be desired. A Global Strategy Group/ProgressNow Colorado survey fielded in June, for instance, showed that he held a 10-percentage-point net-positive favorability with Colorado’s registered voters — but a surprising share, 28 percent, didn’t know or had no opinion of him. Compare that with Gov. Jared Polis, whose net favorability was 5 points better than Bennet’s and only 9 percent of voters didn’t know or had no opinion of him. That being said, the poll had Bennet significantly outperforming President Biden among Colorado voters: Biden’s net favorability was 14 points underwater.
And there are other reasons why national outlets have pounced on Colorado as a pickup opportunity for Republicans. O’Dea, a first-time candidate, has mostly avoided running as far to the right as many of his GOP counterparts. While he voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, he has said openly that he hopes Trump doesn’t run for president in 2024 and that he doesn’t question the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 win.
It’s also possible that social issues, such as the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, that have animated other Senate races won’t be as much of an issue in Colorado, where the right to abortion is codified in state law. In addition, O’Dea is not as conservative as many Republican politicians on abortion. While he did vote in favor of a failed ballot measure in 2020 that would have outlawed abortions after 22 weeks of gestation, and has said he’s personally “pro-life,” he opposed the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe. In fact, he’s said he would support abortions for up to about 20 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions in later months for rape, incest and the life of the mother. And just last week, O’Dea publicly stated he would not support a proposed bill by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Still, Bennet has tried to make abortion a defining line in his race. In August, his campaign launched a new commercial where five women are heard criticizing O’Dea for allegedly opposing “the law protecting abortion access in Colorado” and for supporting Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees, all of whom voted to overturn Roe.
It’s also been hard to grasp the state’s political winds since a plurality of its voters are unaffiliated with either party and polling on its Senate race has been sparse so far. Most Democratic-funded polls give Bennet a double-digit lead over O’Dea (which isn’t surprising as partisan polls are often unreliable and biased), and at least one Republican-funded poll has the two neck-and-neck (also not surprising). Meanwhile, an independent poll by Public Policy Polling showed less support for Bennet than in the Democratic polls but still gave him a fairly large edge.
“The high number of unaffiliated voters here means that there’s a lot of people who are tired of both Republican and Democratic politics,” Hagedorn said. And a Republican like O’Dea who is willing to buck his party’s line on issues like abortion might speak to those voters, she added.
So do Republicans really stand a chance here? At the very least, the lead-up to November should be competitive since that’s how both parties are treating it. But, according to our midterms forecast, O’Dea is very much the underdog here. Not only does Bennet have a lofty fundraising edge, but a Democratic upswing might also help him coast through reelection this fall.
This race merits watching, though, as it could become a harbinger for Democrats in what would normally be a difficult election year for the party. And while Colorado hasn’t recently been a bastion of competitive statewide races, O’Dea isn’t a bad candidate for Republicans, and if the political climate worsens for Democrats, the tide could turn for the GOP in Colorado.