Colorado’s Race to the Rhetorical Middle

Joe O’Dea

is extreme—“extremely extreme,”

Leslie Herod

insists. Ms. Herod, a Democratic state representative preparing a run for mayor in 2023, is working the crowd at a Latin celebration in Denver, but she leans over to add that Mr. O’Dea “is far right” while his opponent, U.S. Sen.

Michael Bennet,

is “a moderate member of the Democratic Party.” Off to the side at the Servicios de La Raza festival, masked luchadores, Mexican wrestlers, launch themselves off the ropes of the wrestling ring, just missing their opponents. Mr. Bennet joins Gov.

Jared Polis

on stage to wave at the small crowd, deliver anodyne remarks and check off another campaign appearance.

The O’Dea and Bennet campaigns are strangely reflective of each other, like fun-house mirrors. Both are painting their own candidates as moderate and their opponents as extreme. “If he’s a moderate, I’m Mother Teresa,” Mr. O’Dea says of Mr. Bennet in an interview on Sept. 14. Three days later, Mr. Bennet says in an interview that Mr. O’Dea “holds views that are way outside the mainstream of Colorado’s mainstream.” The two are neck and neck in a race to the rhetorical middle.

This election ought to be easy for Mr. Bennet. He’s won two elections since his appointment to the Senate in 2009, and reports this summer showed his campaign with $10 million more than Mr. O’Dea’s. Colorado, once a Republican-leaning purple state, is increasingly blue. Democrats control all statewide offices, and

George W. Bush

was the last Republican presidential nominee to carry the state.

Joe Biden’s

margin of victory was 13.5 points.

But Colorado isn’t out of reach for the GOP. The Democratic voter-registration advantage is only 28% to 25%, with 45% unaffiliated. In 2014, the last midterm election with a Democrat in the White House,

Cory Gardner

beat an incumbent Democratic senator. (Mr. Gardner lost his re-election bid in 2020.)

Unlike Mr. Gardner, Mr. O’Dea, who made his fortune in the construction business, is a first-time candidate. But his campaign “has been brilliant,” says a Democratic political consultant who asks not to be named. The RealClearPolitics average has Mr. Bennet up 8.6 points. But he’s below 50%, and an August survey from the Republican Attorneys General Association found the candidates tied.

Energy is a flashpoint.

Gale Norton,

a former state attorney general and U.S. interior secretary, says oil and gas production has brought “great growth for Colorado’s economy” and Mr. O’Dea’s “defense of that will be very helpful.” The nominee regularly rings that bell: “You can’t shut off the grid that we have before you have one ready to replace it,” he says. Racing for the middle, however, he adds, “I believe in wind, solar, nuclear, all those things.”

Sen. Michael Bennet speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington, May 12, 2021.


Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Mr. Bennet has been cagey, attempting to separate himself from environmental extremists. Asked about electric cars, he generally approves but says, “I do not want the Chinese, or Beijing is a better way of saying it, to own the electric-car industry in the 21st century.”

Mr. O’Dea endorses legal abortion, largely neutralizing that hot-button issue. “I think for the first five months, that decision belongs between a woman and her doctor,” he says, and that was his line in the primary too. “I think the late-term thing is outrageous on demand, and that’s where Bennet is.”

Democratic groups spent more than $4 million promoting Mr. O’Dea’s Trump-supporting primary opponent,

Ron Hanks,

with ads attacking Mr. O’Dea as a pro-abortion moderate. That complicates efforts to call him an extremist now. “I’ve seen [Mr. O’Dea] win people over, even though abortion is . . . such a divisive issue,” says

Lora Thomas,

a Republican candidate for sheriff in Douglas County.

Mr. Bennet, the son of a State Department official and college president, was raised in Washington. He looks it, too, with the Capitol Hill uniform of a button-down shirt and dress slacks, the tie carefully discarded for his Colorado campaign events. After Yale Law School, he served in the Clinton administration before moving to Colorado in 1997—“more than a quarter of a century ago,” he snaps in answer to a question about whether he’s a carpetbagger. “I’m as much a Coloradan as any other Coloradan,” he says, and he’s determined to show it. At a sparsely attended gay-rights event on Sept. 17, he wears his collar-buttoned shirt, gray slacks and Oxford dress shoes before switching to blue jeans and sneakers for the Latin festival. Gov. Polis, watching the senator shake hands, tells me Mr. Bennet has “always been ready to roll up his sleeves and get it done.”

Still, Mr. Bennet has detractors. “I badly want to replace Michael Bennet, because Michael Bennet isn’t even really from Colorado,” says

Mark Hillman,

a 55-year-old wheat farmer. Mr. Bennet has yet to debate Mr. O’Dea, which sits poorly with some. “I think Joe has a kind of a very strong-blue collar presence,” says

Dick Wadhams,

a political consultant from Littleton, “and I think Bennet is afraid of it.” But Mr. Bennet is clever and speaks with a calm softness that has served him well in previous years’ debates.

Mr. O’Dea was adopted into a multigenerational Colorado family in southeastern Denver. “I never really have thought too much about moving anywhere else,” he says. “I’m a Colorado kid.” A red-faced man with a large head, silver hair and a closely trimmed beard, he looks like Santa after a haircut. We chat over calzone at Piccolo’s, a restaurant in a nondescript strip mall. “My dad used to come in here,” he says. “He was a Denver cop and knew the owners really well.”

Dressed in short sleeves, Mr. O’Dea presents himself as casual, unpracticed at professional politics. A champion horseman, he wants to talk about Baxter Black and cowboy poetry. Asked about his early influences, he says: “I got into a little bit of trouble in junior high school, and so my parents took me out of a public school and sent me to an all-boys Catholic school, run by nuns and brothers. I had to pay the tuition by working nights and Saturdays here at Piccolo’s.”

What Mr. O’Dea claims to have learned is moderation. “Balance” is his mantra. “There needs to be balance” in the use of public lands, he says. “There needs to be some balance” in abortion law. When the conversation drifts to business and remote work, he adds, “You just have to be balanced.”

The point of this balancing act is to position himself as the middle man in the Senate race. The Democrats’ spending in the GOP primary “to boost a candidate that they are now calling a threat to democracy is obscene,” he said. “It’s disappointing to see them stoop to that level. . . . They’ll do anything to stay in power.” Mr. Bennet has voted with Mr. Biden 98% of the time. His “voting record speaks as loud as anything,” says Mr. O’Dea. “For him to now come out and say he’s a moderate is really disingenuous.”

Who’s the real extremist? The answer seems to be neither. The election may be Mr. Bennet’s to lose, but both candidates are racing for the middle, believing that the candidate who appears the most moderate, the least extremely extreme, will prevail.

Ms. Bottum is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.

Journal Editorial Report: Democrats have turned the emergency into a policy opportunity. Image: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

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