A Surprise Senate Race Rises Out West

GRANBY, Colo. — It was a bit tense for a groundbreaking ceremony.

Against the striking backdrop of the enveloping Rocky Mountains, Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat seeking a third full term, symbolically shoveled dirt to start a $30 million Colorado River restoration project for which he had helped secure nearly half the funding.

Watching from a respectable distance was Joe O’Dea, a Republican political novice who is trying to come out of nowhere to upset Mr. Bennet — and whose Denver construction company is coincidentally the lead contractor on the job. Their confluence on a recent Tuesday at the Windy Gap Reservoir in the heart of rugged Grand County had the crowd of environmentalists, government officials, ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts buzzing.

Mr. Bennet eschewed a hard hat, aware of the risk of being photographed in ill-fitting headwear during a political campaign, à la Michael Dukakis. Mr. O’Dea donned a well-worn round-brimmed version and an orange construction vest. The two did not interact, but each had something to say about the other.

Mr. Bennet noted his rival’s usual distaste for government spending, which the Republican has blamed for inflation.

“I hear he hates federal spending, except for the $14 million that built this thing,” said the incumbent, who was a surprise appointee to a Senate vacancy in 2009 before winning election for the first time in a difficult environment the next year.

Mr. O’Dea, standing near the heavy equipment his workers will employ to return a stretch of the imperiled river to its natural flow, was not impressed by the praise heaped upon Mr. Bennet by the assembled backers of the project.

“That’s what politicians do,” Mr. O’Dea said, making clear that he did not consider himself part of that cohort. “I’m into building things, and we will do our job here.”

Joe O’Dea, the Republican candidate, owns a construction company and is running as a political outsider.Credit…Rachel Woolf for The New York Times

Colorado was not expected to be part of the Senate battleground landscape this year. While not yet in the solid blue column, the state has been trending Democratic, and Mr. Bennet seemed a good bet for another term as Republicans invested their resources in what they saw as riper opportunities elsewhere.

Democrats sought to bolster Mr. Bennet’s chances through backdoor advertising on behalf of hard-right, MAGA-embracing candidates in the Republican primary who would most likely have been weaker adversaries with little chance of being embraced by the state’s unaffiliated voters, now the largest voting bloc in Colorado.

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But Mr. O’Dea won the primary anyway, and while Mr. Bennet remains the favorite, the Cook Political Report recently shifted the contest from “Likely Democrat” to “Lean Democrat.” The Republican is threatening to make a race of it if he can increase his fund-raising and land his message that he is not a typical partisan politician.

“As far as I’m concerned, any politician who votes for the party line is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Mr. O’Dea said after exchanging the orange vest for a sport coat for a speech before the Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs. “The national parties have become vehicles to perpetuate power and promote discord. And I’m tired of it.”

Mr. O’Dea has been a welcome relief for Senate Republicans who have seen their once-strong chances of retaking the Senate shrink with a field of problematic arch-conservatives struggling in what should a favorable midterm year. Mr. O’Dea has been willing to say that Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the 2020 election and that President Donald J. Trump did not and should not run again. In this cycle, that is enough to qualify a Republican as moderate.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who hopes to become the majority leader next year, has said he is “all in” on Mr. O’Dea. To Democrats, that is a big liability. They frame Mr. O’Dea as another potential foot soldier for Mr. McConnell and a conservative agenda, particularly on abortion rights, which have become a major issue in this race as well as other Senate contests across the country after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Mr. O’Dea, who has positioned himself as a supporter of abortion rights with limits, acknowledged recently to The Colorado Sun that he voted for a failed statewide referendum in 2020 that would have banned abortion after 22 weeks without exceptions for rape and incest. Democrats pounced, saying his vote showed that he would join Republicans in imposing a nationwide ban on abortion.

“You can’t escape the fact that he voted for an abortion ban,” Mr. Bennet said after a re-election rally at the Yampa River Botanic Park in Steamboat Springs. He accused Mr. O’Dea of “creating” an abortion position for a general-election audience.

“I think the national Republicans are hoping that he will be able to succeed in fooling the people in Colorado about where he really stood on this issue, but I don’t think he is going to be able to do that,” Mr. Bennet said.

Mr. O’Dea dismissed the criticism and said the Bennet campaign was distorting his views and exaggerating his position on the referendum. “They are trying to attach a stigma to this that just doesn’t exist,” he said, portraying Mr. Bennet as an extremist for supporting abortion at all stages of pregnancy. “I think people are going to vote their conscience.”

Mr. O’Dea, left, comes from a fourth-generation Colorado family.Credit…Rachel Woolf for The New York Times
At stops in Steamboat Springs and Granby, Mr. Bennet was recognized for his willingness to engage on complex water and forestry issues.Credit…Rachel Woolf for The New York Times

Despite differences on complex policy issues, the race sometimes seems more like a clash over who is the most authentic Coloradan. Mr. Bennet’s first ads have shown him hiking and fly-fishing, though he was dinged after Axios reported that he obtained a one-day permit for his fishing shoot. An ad for Mr. O’Dea features him loping on horseback, and he is quick to note that he comes from a fourth-generation Colorado family.

“I don’t think there’s any question where I grew up,” Mr. O’Dea said in an interview.

In response, Mr. Bennet — who was born in India, grew up in Washington, D.C., and relocated to the state in 1997 — said he would stipulate that his opponent is a Colorado native and he is not. But he said he has put down deep roots.

“I’ve raised my three daughters here,” said Mr. Bennet, who recalls that when he took office, a vast majority of people in the state did not know who he was. “I’ve served this community not just in the Senate, but as the school superintendent for Denver Public Schools. And I can tell you this: There is no statewide elected politician who’s been in more corners of the state more often over this 14 years than me.”

Mr. Bennet gets credit from those on the western slope of the Continental Divide for paying attention to the region’s concerns and not concentrating solely on Denver and the population centers along the state’s Front Range. At the stops in Steamboat Springs and Granby, he was recognized for his willingness to engage on complex water and forestry issues.

“Thanks, Senator Bennet, for getting us over the final hurdle,” Merrit Linke, a Grand County commissioner and a Republican, said in congratulating him for securing the money needed to get started on the river restoration.

But Republicans believe Mr. Biden’s low standing and voter concerns about kitchen-table issues can eclipse the attacks on Mr. O’Dea’s stances on abortion and other issues — and eventually propel him to victory.

“I want to talk about the price of gas,” Mr. O’Dea said, “I want to talk about inflation, I want to talk about crime, because that’s what Americans here in Colorado are talking about.”

So far, Mr. O’Dea has badly lagged Mr. Bennet in financial resources, with less than $1 million in the bank at the end of June compared with Mr. Bennet’s $8 million.

Mr. Bennet’s campaign has a big financial advantage, with $8 million on hand at the end of June.Credit…Rachel Woolf for The New York Times

Democrats believe that the financial advantage is a significant edge and that Mr. O’Dea will not be able to outrun the extremist image of the national Republican Party that turns off many Colorado independents. They also think that some state Republicans will not vote for him because of his more moderate positions on abortion and Mr. Trump.

As he travels the state, Mr. Bennet, who led the campaign arm of his party when it lost Senate control in 2014, emphasizes the progress that the Democratic-controlled Congress has recently made. He points to a bipartisan gun safety law, a major veterans’ health measure, sweeping climate change legislation and multibillion-dollar investments in water infrastructure improvements and forest health, including $4 billion in drought relief for states along the Colorado River Basin.

He acknowledges the difficulties of the political environment but remains confident.

“The president’s numbers aren’t great, the inflation numbers aren’t great — although they are getting a little bit better,” he said. “This is going to be a real battle for the majority in the Senate. But I feel like we’ve got a record to run on.”

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