GRANBY, Colo. — It was a bit tense for an opening ceremony.
Against the stunning backdrop of the encircling Rocky Mountains, Sen. Michael Bennett, a Democrat from Colorado seeking a third full term, symbolically turned over dirt to begin a $30 million Colorado River restoration project for which he had helped secure almost half of the funds.
Watching from a respectable distance was Joe O’Dea, a Republican political novice who is trying to come out of nowhere to piss off Bennet, and whose Denver construction company is coincidentally the prime contractor on the job. His 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. Bennett avoided wearing helmets, aware of the risk of being photographed wearing an ill-fitting hat during a Michael Dukakis-style political campaign. Mr. O’Dea donned a round-brimmed distressed version and an orange construction vest. The two did not interact, but each had something to say about the other.
Bennett pointed to his rival’s usual distaste for government spending, which the Republican blames on inflation.
“I hear he hates federal spending, except for the $14 million that built this thing,” said the incumbent, who was unexpectedly appointed to a Senate vacancy in 2009 before winning election for the first time in a tough environment the next year. .
Mr. O’Dea, standing near the heavy equipment his workers will use to return an endangered stretch of the river to its natural flow, was unimpressed by the praise that project sponsors heaped on Mr. Bennet.
“That’s what politicians do,” O’Dea said, making it clear he didn’t consider himself part of that cohort. “I’m into building things, and we’ll do our job here.”
Colorado was not expected to be part of the Senate battleground this year. While not yet in the solid blue column, the state has been trending Democratic, and Mr. Bennet seemed like a good bet for another term as Republicans poured their resources into what they saw as more mature opportunities elsewhere. .
Democrats tried to bolster Bennett’s chances through clandestine advertising on behalf of far-right candidates embracing MAGA in the Republican primary who would most likely have been weaker opponents unlikely to be accepted by unaffiliated voters. of the state, now the largest voter. block 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 changed the race from “Likely Democrat” to “Lean Democrat.” The Republican is threatening to make a run if he can increase his fundraising and convey his message that he is not a typical partisan politician.
“As far as I’m concerned, any politician who votes the party line is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” O’Dea said after changing from his orange vest to a sports jacket for a speech before Congress Colorado water at Steamboat Springs. “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 to Senate Republicans who have seen their once-strong chances of retaking the Senate dwindle with a group of troublesome arch-conservatives fighting in what should be a year favorable midterm. 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’s enough to qualify a Republican as a moderate.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who hopes to become majority leader next year, has said he is “totally committed” to O’Dea. For Democrats, that is a huge responsibility. They frame Mr. O’Dea as another potential foot soldier for Mr. McConnell and a conservative agenda, particularly on abortion rights, which has become a major issue in this race, as well as in other Senate races. across the country after the Supreme Court struck down Roe. v. Wade in June.
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Mr. O’Dea, who has positioned himself as a supporter of limited abortion rights, recently recognized The Colorado Sun who voted for a failed state referendum in 2020 that would have banned abortion after 22 weeks with no exceptions for rape and incest. Democrats pounced, saying his vote showed he would join Republicans in imposing a national abortion ban.
“You can’t get away from the fact that he voted to ban abortion,” Bennett said after a re-election rally at the Yampa River Botanical Park in Steamboat Springs. He accused Mr. O’Dea of ”creating” an abortion position for a general election hearing.
“I think the national Republicans are hoping that he can mislead the people of Colorado about where he really stands on this issue, but I don’t think he can do that,” Mr. Bennet said. he said.
O’Dea dismissed the criticism, saying the Bennett campaign was distorting his views and exaggerating his position on the referendum. “They’re trying to add a stigma to this that just doesn’t exist,” she said, portraying Bennett as an extremist for supporting abortion at all stages of pregnancy. “I think people are going to vote according to their conscience.”
Despite differences on complex policy issues, the race at times feels more like a showdown over who is the most authentic Coloradan. Mr. Bennet’s early advertisements featured him walking and fly-fishing, though he was later criticized Axios reported who obtained a one-day permit for his fishing session. An ad for Mr. O’Dea shows him riding a horse, and he quickly realizes that he comes from a fourth-generation Colorado family.
“I don’t think there’s any question about where I grew up,” O’Dea said in an interview.
In response, Mr. Bennet, who was born in India, grew up in Washington, DC and moved to the state in 1997, said he would stipulate that his opponent is a native Colorado and he is not. But he said that he has put down deep roots.
“I’ve raised my three daughters here,” said Mr. Bennet, who recalls that when he took office, the vast majority of people in the state didn’t know who he was. “I have served this community not only in the Senate, but also as a school superintendent for Denver Public Schools. And I can tell you this: There is no elected politician in the entire state who has been to more corners of the state more often during these 14 years than I have.”
Mr. Bennet is credited by those on the western slopes of the Continental Divide for paying attention to the region’s concerns and not focusing solely on Denver and the population centers along the state’s Front Range. At the Steamboat Springs and Granby stops, he was recognized for his willingness to engage with complex issues related to water and forestry.
“Thank you, Senator Bennet, for helping us get over the last hurdle,” Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke, a Republican, said, congratulating him on securing the money needed to begin river restoration.
But Republicans believe Biden’s low reputation and voter concerns about kitchen table issues may overshadow attacks on O’Dea’s positions on abortion and other issues, eventually propelling him to victory.
“I want to talk about the price of gas,” said Mr. O’Dea, “I want to talk about inflation, I want to talk about crime, because that’s what Americans here in Colorado talk about.”
So far, Mr. O’Dea has fallen far behind Mr. Bennet in financial resources, with less than $1 million in the bank at the end of June compared to Mr. Bennet’s $8 million.
Democrats believe the financial advantage is a significant advantage and that Mr. O’Dea will not be able to leave behind the extremist image of the national Republican Party that alienates many independents from Colorado. They also think that some state Republicans will not vote for him because of his more moderate positions on abortion and Mr. Trump.
Traveling around the state, Mr. Bennet, who ran his party’s campaign when he lost control of the Senate in 2014, emphasizes the progress the Democratic-controlled Congress has made recently. He points to a bipartisan gun safety law, a major veterans health measure, sweeping climate change legislation, and multimillion-dollar investments in forest health and water infrastructure improvements, including $4 billion in drought relief for veterans. states along the Colorado River Basin.
He acknowledges the difficulties of the political environment, but remains confident.
“The president’s numbers are not very good, the inflation numbers are not very good, although they are improving a little bit,” he said. “This is going to be a real battle for majority in the Senate. But I feel like we have a record to go on.”