Can Colorado's GOP Senate candidate outmaneuver Democrats on abortion?

When it comes to abortion — the most fraught and factious issue of the 2022 midterm elections now that Roe v. Wade is no longer the law of the land — Colorado Republican Senate nominee Joe O’Dea likes to use a word that Americans don’t hear much these days: “balance.”

“Abortion is one of these issues tearing this country apart,” O’Dea explained in August. “We have to find a balance so we can start the long process of moving the country forward and give women certainty.”

“I’m going to the Senate to negotiate a good bill that brings balance to women’s rights,” O’Dea added last week in an interview with 9News Denver.

Colorado Democrats, however, insist that when O’Dea uses the word “balance,” he’s simply proving their point: that neither he — nor any Republican — can be trusted on abortion ever again.

“This ... destroys the ‘moderate’ myth [O’Dea] has tried so hard to create,” Colorado Democratic consultant Craig Hughes shot back on Twitter as soon as O’Dea’s 9News interview aired. “[He] is not a pro-choice candidate. At all. ‘Balance to women's rights’?? No.”

Joe O'Dea and his wife, Celeste, stand with their arms around each other in front of an American flag.
Joe O'Dea, a construction company CEO and first-time candidate for office, celebrates the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate over state Rep. Ron Hanks with his wife, Celeste, right, at Mile High Station in Denver, Colo., on June 28. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

It’s no secret that the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision to overturn Roe has upended the midterm landscape. By reversing nearly a half a century of federal protections and triggering abortion bans in at least 13 states — many of which don’t include exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother — the court’s monumental ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization appears to have galvanized otherwise disengaged Democrats and forced Republicans to play defense at a time when the president’s party typically struggles to stay in power.

As polls show Democrats taking a narrow lead on the national congressional ballot, several GOP Senate candidates have gone so far as to scrub their campaign websites of the hard-line anti-abortion stances they took during the primaries.

But not O’Dea. During his own primary battle, the construction-CEO-turned-rookie-candidate repeatedly declared that even though he’s personally “pro-life” — in part because he was adopted at birth into a police officer’s family — he doesn’t “believe in the decision that [the Supreme Court] made” to overturn Roe.

To replace it, O’Dea now says he would support a federal law guaranteeing nationwide access to abortion for the “first 20 weeks” of pregnancy — the point when he believes the fetus can survive on its own outside the womb. After that, he continues, the procedure would be allowed only in cases of rape and incest or to protect the mother’s life.

Not long ago, O’Dea’s position would have hit the sweet spot for a swing-state pol — and the conflicted voters they count on for support. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov survey from May, just 31% of the country wanted the Supreme Court to end federal abortion protections under Roe.

Activists hold signs aloft reading: Reproductive rights = woman rights and Democracy now!
Abortion rights activists protest in front of the Colorado state Capitol in Denver on June 27, four days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the nationwide right to abortion. (Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images)

At the same time, far more Americans believe abortion should be “generally legal” during the first three months of pregnancy (61%) than during months three to six (32%). Even fewer (19%) think abortion should be generally legal during the last three months of pregnancy. (Studies show that just 1% of abortions take place after the 20-week mark, and many happen because of abnormalities that threaten the life of the mother or the health of the fetus.)

And while roughly three-quarters of Americans believe abortions should be generally legal “when the woman’s life is endangered” (76%) or “when the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest” (71%), less than half say the same when a pregnant person simply “does not want to go through with” giving birth (44%).

In other words, most Americans aren’t all that different from O’Dea on abortion. But do swing-state Republicans — members of a party that wants to further restrict the procedure — still have room to strike some sort of “balance” in a polarized, post-Roe America? Is there any middle ground left on abortion — or do the old shades of gray now alienate more voters than they attract?

Colorado’s closer-than-expected Senate race will put that question to the test.

If any place in America is still open to compromise, the Centennial State would seem to be it.

The longtime swing state has trended leftward in recent years; a Republican presidential nominee hasn’t won there since 2004, and its last GOP governor left office in 2007. Yet unlike Republicans in other fast-changing areas, right-leaning Coloradans haven’t embraced extremes in response.

In June, the state’s GOP primary voters — including independents who requested a Republican ballot — rejected three far-right election deniers endorsed by former President Donald Trump. For secretary of state, Pam Anderson, a respected former Jefferson County clerk who repeatedly vouched for the 2020 results, routed Tina Peters, her counterpart from Mesa County who faces criminal charges for allegedly tampering with local election systems in search of nonexistent fraud.

For governor, Heidi Ganahl, a University of Colorado regent with strong ties to the state’s GOP establishment, defeated rival Greg Lopez, another election conspiracy buff. And O’Dea clobbered State Rep. Ron Hanks, whose debut campaign video showed him shooting a piece of office equipment labeled “Dominion Voting Machine.”

Joe O'Dea.
O’Dea celebrates the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate over state Rep. Ron Hanks at Mile High Station, in Denver, on June 28. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Of Trump, O’Dea said last month that “I hope he doesn’t run [in 2024]. I don’t want to see him as president again.” A spokesperson added that “if former President Trump runs, he can expect Joe to campaign alongside [other possible GOP contenders] Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, or Tim Scott.” O’Dea is also the only top GOP Senate prospect Trump hasn’t endorsed.

On the flip side, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis broke with the liberal consensus on COVID-19, rescinding statewide mask mandates in July 2021 and refusing to reinstate them during subsequent surges. And both of the state’s current Democratic senators — O’Dea’s opponent Michael Bennet and former Gov. John Hickenlooper — have played central roles in recent compromise legislation on Capitol Hill.

Experts say this somewhat-less-partisan approach has been a hallmark of Colorado politics for decades now. “There’s a large libertarian sensibility out here on both the right and the left,” Mike Littwin, the veteran Denver Post political columnist who now writes for the Colorado Sun, previously told Yahoo News. “It’s a Western thing.”

On abortion, that’s long meant minimal government interference — and residents who are more resistant to restrictions than their peers in other purple states.

In 1967, Colorado became the first state to legalize the procedure in cases involving rape, incest or risk to the mother. In 2008, 73% of Colorado voters cast their ballots against a measure that would have changed the definition of a person to “any human being from the moment of fertilization.”

In 2020, voters blocked another initiative that would have banned abortion after 22 weeks unless the mother’s life was in danger. (There were no exceptions for rape or incest.) And earlier this year the Democratic legislature reaffirmed that a “pregnant individual has a fundamental right … to have an abortion” at any stage of pregnancy.

People hold up signs reading Stop the war on women, Free abortion on demand, and Defend Roe by any means necessary.
People hold up signs in a rally outside of the Colorado state Capitol to protest the leaked draft opinion that foretold the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, on May 3 in Denver. (Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

O’Dea argues that his 20-week compromise position is well within the mainstream of Colorado politics. (The state’s previous Republican senator, Cory Gardner, won office in 2014 even though he had just co-sponsored the “Life Begins at Conception Act” in the U.S. House). “Joe O’Dea: supports abortion rights, gay marriage,” reads one O’Dea web ad. “‘You live your life, I’ll live mine.’”

But Bennet says otherwise.

“You can’t escape the fact that he voted for an abortion ban,” Bennet recently told the New York Times.

He went on to accuse O’Dea of “creating” an abortion position for his new 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,” Bennet said. “But I don’t think he is going to be able to do that.”

At issue here is O’Dea’s August admission that he voted for the 2020 ballot initiative to ban nearly all abortions after 22 weeks — with no exceptions for rape or incest.

For his part, O’Dea told the Associated Press he “didn’t look at all the nuances” and now considers such exceptions essential. But Colorado Democrats such as Bennet argue that America is past the point of “nuance.” If you want to be a senator, they say, what matters isn’t how nuanced your views are. It’s how you vote — and Democrats say O’Dea’s abortion position means he wouldn’t back legislation to reinstate Roe’s protections. Instead, they claim, any Republican senator — even one who calls for “balance” — would expand the power of the party that overturned Roe and raise the risk of further restrictions.

Sen. Michael Bennet talks with reporters.
Sen. Michael Bennet at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 4. (Michael Brochstein/ZUMA Press Wire)

So Bennet has put abortion front and center. In late August, Bennett’s campaign started to air a 30-second ad in which five Colorado women criticize O’Dea for saying he would have voted for Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees — the ones who tipped the court against Roe. “It makes the race for Senate even more important,” warned a woman from Boulder.

O’Dea soon responded with a video of his own. “Michael Bennet isn’t telling the truth,” said O’Dea’s daughter as she urged viewers to Google her dad “and find out his positions for yourself.”

“He will defend a woman’s right to choose,” she insisted.

Whether O’Dea’s abortion message breaks through — and whether Coloradans even have any appetite for a message like his these days — remains to be seen. So far, Bennet has been lapping O’Dea in the money race, ending June with $8 million in the bank — eight times as much as O’Dea. Bennet has also dropped about $3 million on TV spots since mid-July, according to ad trackers. That’s about twice the sum that O'Dea & Co. have spent.

Help could be on the way for O’Dea. In July, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was “all in” for the Coloradan, lauding him as “the perfect candidate for the nature of your state.”

“I wanted to dispel any notion that you may have that we’re not going to play in Colorado,” added McConnell, who has questioned the “quality” of the Trump-endorsed candidates in other marquee Senate races such as Georgia and Arizona. “We think we can win this race.”

But so far, no such support has materialized; McConnell’s powerful super-PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, says it’s “keeping an eye on the race.”

Meanwhile, Bennet just released yet another TV ad — this one accusing O’Dea of being “perfect for McConnell” but “wrong for Colorado.”

A still from Sen. Michael Bennet’s campaign ad showing Mitch McConnell and O'Dea with words: The Perfect Candidate, July 19, 2022
A still from Sen. Michael Bennet’s campaign ad.

For a short spell after the June primary, a handful of Republican polls showed O’Dea gaining ground. One by McLaughlin and Associates from late July had him trailing by 8 points. Another by Trafalgar Group from mid-August showed him down by 5. And a third by Tarrance Group from late August found a statistical tie: 48% for Bennet, 47% for O’Dea.

The national media descended. “Joe O’Dea might have discovered the template for being an appealing Republican even while much of the party grovels to someone appalling,” cooed conservative columnist George Will. Was O’Dea’s “moderation” working — his distance from Trump, his tagline about “putting country before party,” his focus on runaway inflation?

Yet since then — since Bennet has started hammering O’Dea on abortion — only one new survey has surfaced. It’s by the well-regarded Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. It shows Bennet ahead by 11 points.

D.C. Republicans will continue to “keep their eyes” on the data as Election Day approaches, calculating where to allocate their resources. But they might want to keep their eyes on their colleagues as well.

On Tuesday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a new bill that would outlaw abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy — and vowed that if Republicans take back the House and the Senate, there will be a vote on it.

O’Dea quickly said he would vote against Graham’s abortion ban if elected. But it was another news cycle devoted to the nuances of an issue that voters increasingly see in black and white. The more the GOP reminds Coloradans that abortion is on the ballot in November, the harder it will be for O’Dea to strike the kind of “balance” he needs to win.

Cover thumbnail photo: David Zalubowski/AP