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GOP aims to upset the Colo. Senate race, but Democrats are confident in Bennet


Democrats may be feeling more optimistic about the midterm elections lately, but Republicans are looking to the Rocky Mountains to pull an upset in their campaign to flip control of the Senate. Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet is running for his third term. His opponent is the one Republican in a tight Senate race not endorsed by Donald Trump. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh reports from Denver.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Republicans hope the GOP nominee, construction company CEO Joe O'Dea, can flip this blue seat red. He's a rare Republican who affirms President Biden won the 2020 election and thinks someone other than Trump should lead the party in 2024.

JOE O'DEA: I'm going to campaign for somebody else, and we're going to move the country forward. And that's where I've been.

WALSH: The first-time candidate sticks to a centrist message.

O'DEA: On the whole, we got to get rid of this partisanship that's just keeping us from putting good policies in place that move America forward, and that's why I'm running. I'm independent-minded. I'm a conservative, but at the same time, we've got to do what's right for Colorado, what's right for America.

WALSH: A big part of O'Dea's strategy is outreach to Latino voters who could be the second-largest voting bloc in the state. At a Hispanic cultural event in Denver, he drank a Mexican lager and bought his wife earrings from a local vendor.


O'DEA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED VENDOR: (Speaking Spanish).

O'DEA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED VENDOR: (Speaking Spanish).

WALSH: In another break with the bulk of his party, O'Dea backs protections for DREAMers and wants a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers. But he stressed Hispanic voters tell him they are focused on the same things as all Coloradans.

O'DEA: They're worried about the price of gas and this record crime that's taken over the city. That's spot on their mind right now.

WALSH: Over tea at a local coffee shop in Denver, incumbent Michael Bennet pushes back at the notion that O'Dea is a moderate who can compete here.

MICHAEL BENNET: That is the national media's interpretation of what's going on in this race.

WALSH: Bennet spent much of August traveling the state, touting legislation Democrats passed to lower prescription drug prices and invest in climate programs. He agrees with his opponent that voters are very focused on inflation.

BENNET: What people are having to pay for food and for gasoline is a challenge. But I think that my sense is that people are actually seeing Washington begin to work again. And after the chaos of four years of Donald Trump, that's really welcome.


WALSH: At the final week of the Green Valley Ranch Summer Farmers Market, north of downtown Denver, shoppers are milling around as a band plays live music. Most of the people we talked to don't know who's running in November's Senate race, but they had strong feelings about what matters for their vote this fall.

LEON SMITH: Housing and jobs.

WALSH: That's kettle corn vendor Leon Smith.

SMITH: Kettle? Ten minutes.

WALSH: Smith voted for former President Trump but said he doesn't feel compelled to vote for either party this fall.

SMITH: Right now, each party is just still doing tit for tat. They're not handling no business.

WALSH: For Linda Wilson, who leans Democrat, one issue is top of mind.

LINDA WILSON: The abortion issue is a big one. And even though when I was younger, I had the choice - because I was pregnant before I got married - it was a choice. It wasn't an option that I would have chosen for myself, but I had that option.

WALSH: Abortion may be O'Dea's biggest challenge. He backs some abortion rights, but he's running in a state with a long history of protecting abortion access. The state codified its protections this year, a law O'Dea opposed. He also voted for a ballot measure in 2020 that banned abortions after 22 weeks, with no exceptions. That was soundly defeated. O'Dea sidestepped whether those positions put him out of step with a majority of Colorado voters. Instead, he emphasized when he thinks abortion should be legal.

O'DEA: I believe the first five months, the mother has the choice. After that, there should be some exceptions - rape, incest, life of the mother.

WALSH: But O'Dea said he supports Trump's Supreme Court appointees, who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. Abortion-rights advocates argue that position is inconsistent.

O'DEA: I believe in good conservative judges. I like that, but I don't believe in the decision that they made.

WALSH: O'Dea said he would represent his constituents if a nationwide abortion ban came up in the Senate. But Bennet argues O'Dea's position on abortion, along with his stances on other issues, will turn off Colorado voters.

BENNET: He's the nominee of the Republican Party here in Colorado, and he says that Trump bears no responsibility for what happened on January 6. That should be disqualifying, to say nothing of his position on Roe v. Wade, to say nothing of, you know, his position on the trickle-down economics that have made Colorado and so many places in this country unaffordable for working people.

WALSH: As O'Dea deliberately pivots away from Trump, Bennet insists the former president is a factor.

BENNET: It's a reality that Trump hangs over everything.

WALSH: Trump is someone who came up with most of the voters we talked to Philip Cardenas, who sells freeze-dried candy at the Green Valley Ranch Farmers Market, plans to back Bennet. He admits he doesn't know anything about O'Dea, but says he's concerned about extremism from the GOP.

PHILIP CARDENAS: I think a majority of Americans are purple. I mean, if the climate was different, I would definitely - and I thought a Republican president would do better, I would vote. But they're too far right, right now, with the MAGA crowd.

WALSH: O'Dea has called January 6 a black eye on the country. He vows he wouldn't vote in lockstep with GOP leaders.

O'DEA: If they want my vote, then they're going to have to earn it. And they're going to have to move things around to make sure that I can honor my word.

WALSH: Complaints about partisanship blocking real action are common here. Lynette Vigil, a mom of seven, says housing costs are out of control. But she doesn't have much faith Congress will do much about it.

LYNETTE VIGIL: It's a circus. Like, there's no other word for it. It's a circus. I feel like people are living in an alternate reality.

WALSH: Bennet gets the frustration but points to a string of recent bills as evidence the Senate is working.

BENNET: I mean, it'd be hard to imagine somebody more disenchanted with Washington, D.C., than I am. But I will say that for the last 12 months or so, it's really been amazing to see what's been accomplished, mostly in a bipartisan way - Republicans and Democrats working together. And I don't think that should be discounted.

WALSH: O'Dea's pitch to attract independents and Democrats is that he's someone who's willing to compromise. But Bennet says this election is a choice between a party that has made some headway to bring down high prices or a party dominated by a leader still fighting about the last election.

Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, Denver, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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