Column: How bad could November be for Democrats? Watch this Senate race and see

Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and Republican nominee Joe O'Dea.
(Associated Press)

When Democrats candidly assess the party’s prospects for November, their responses range from bad to awful to curled up and whimpering in a fetal position.

It seems all but certain Democrats will lose control of the House, with Republicans needing a gain of just four seats. The partisan redrawing of congressional districts after the last census should just about cover that spread.

The real fight is for control of the 50-50 Senate, where Republicans have saddled themselves with some dubious prospects.


If Democrats keep control, it will be because of candidates like Herschel Walker, the epically clueless former college football star who could easily fumble away one of the GOP’s prime pickup opportunities in Georgia, and election deniers like Adam Laxalt in Nevada.

But let’s say the red wave is a big one. Say it’s strong enough not only to sweep in GOP flotsam like Walker and jetsam like Laxalt and Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz, but also powerful enough to carry a Republican to victory in a blue state like Colorado.

In that case, Democrats’ November could be very bad indeed.

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Democrat Michael Bennet, the state’s amiable U.S. senator, should be waltzing to reelection. President Biden carried Colorado by more than 13 percentage points. Republican haven’t won the governorship in more than 20 years, and the last Republican to capture a Senate seat, in 2014, barely prevailed in a landslide year for the GOP.

But strategists on both sides say the race is far from over, even if it leans Bennet’s direction. As Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania appear more problematic, Republicans are eyeing Colorado as a place they might potentially swipe a Democratic seat and boost their chances of seizing the Senate.

Consider the state a barometer. Or, if you don’t mind mixing metaphors, call Bennet a canary on the shoreline, gauging just how high the Republican tide might go.


“He’s not in danger yet,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster who has spent decades surveying Colorado voters. “But [President] Biden is in terrible shape and if that becomes a major factor, a lot of candidates we assume would be safe could be in trouble.”

Democrats did their best to put the Senate race out of Republican reach. The party and its allies spent millions in the primary promoting GOP state Sen. Ron Hanks, a stoker on the Trump crazy train, in hopes of landing him as Bennet’s opponent.

The strategy, which worked elsewhere, fell flat in Colorado.

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May 19, 2022

Instead, Republicans chose Joe O’Dea, 60, a fourth-generation Coloradan who got rich building a construction company and calls himself “a Republican Joe Manchin” who is willing to “work with reasonable people on both sides of the aisle.”

“I’ll vote my conscience, I’ll make tough choices, I’ll ruffle some feathers,” he said after winning the primary. “No political party will own me.”

Which is not a bad thing to say in a state where there are more unaffiliated voters than registered Democrats or Republicans.

O’Dea rejects much of what has become GOP orthodoxy. He dismisses Trump’s lie about the 2020 election being stolen, opposes repeal of the Affordable Care Act and says he supports abortion rights “early in the pregnancy” and later in cases involving rape, incest or to save a woman’s life. (Democrats note he has not backed legislation at the state and federal levels that would enshrine abortion rights into law.)

Like most Republicans, he would prefer to campaign against Biden and the scourges of crime and inflation, which have cratered the president’s approval rating here in Colorado as elsewhere.

That’s the weight hanging around Bennet’s neck.

The lawmaker was appointed to the Senate in 2009, when Ken Salazar joined President Obama’s Cabinet, and scratched out an election against a bumbling opponent in 2010, which was another banner year for Republicans. Bennet was reelected in 2016 with a less-than-impressive 49.97% of the vote, also against a weak opponent.

If the 57-year-old senator were summed up in a word, it would be inoffensive; even political opponents say Bennet’s a nice guy. Another word would be unexceptional.

Bennet has been free of controversy and avoided scandal. But he also hasn’t racked up any huge legislative victories. He ran a forgettable 2020 campaign for president and unlike some previous Colorado senators, hasn’t carved much of a national reputation.

He’s certainly not been as conspicuous as Colorado’s other senator, the quirky former Gov. John Hickenlooper. (Quirky as in appearing in campaign ads jumping from an airplane and showering in a shirt and tie.)

“He’s more of an indoor intellectual,” Ciruli said of the state’s senior senator.

Which is hardly a sin, though in this nature-worshipping state it’s notable Bennet’s first ad shows him walking through mountain greenery in a plaid shirt and hiking pants while discussing lobbying reform and shunning corporate PAC money.

Democrats say there is plenty in O’Dea’s record to paint him as just another standard-issue Republican. They cite his opposition to new gun controls, support for cutting Medicare and Social Security, go-slow approach to fighting climate change and stated willingness to back Trump if he’s the 2024 Republican nominee.

“The GOP brand is still tarnished in Colorado,” said Alan Salazar, chief of staff to Denver’s Democratic mayor, Michael Hancock. “O’Dea needs to overcome that by making a clean break from Trump.”

That, however, risks alienating Republicans, requiring O’Dea to walk a fine line. As a political novice, it’s not clear he has the skill to do that.

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June 28, 2022

Being a Democrat in a Democratic-leaning state should be enough for Bennet to prevail in November.

If he loses, it probably won’t be because of anything Bennet said or did, or any lack of grand accomplishment.

Rather, it will be the undertow of a deeply unpopular president and a Republican wave so big it washed over the sky-scraping Rockies.