EAGLE, Colorado — There is something going on here in Colorado politics that is not much different than what happened in Virginia exactly one year ago: a shift away from the status quo and the odds-on favorite Democrat toward his Republican challenger.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is seeking a second full term against Republican challenger Joe O'Dea. And the question, in a state where people tend to dislike both parties but increasingly favor Democrats, is whether O'Dea is independent enough to earn their vote.
Democrats viewed O'Dea as enough of a threat that they dropped $10 million into the Republican primary to manipulate voters into backing his "stop-the-steal" primary rival. Their advertising to Republican voters aimed to paint O'Dea as a centrist, which complicates their task now. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is really unpopular in this state.
For his own part, O'Dea is a really good candidate whose worldview very much reflects that of the voters here: fierce, independent-thinking and owing nothing to anyone.
Like Virginia, Colorado is a blue state that occasionally flirts with Republican candidates. And as in Virginia, the voters here are unhappy that the Democrat running to represent them has lost his independence.
They are now listening to the candidate who speaks to them and not just a party line — and polling reflects that. A survey conducted for the Republican Attorney General's Association shows Bennet up over O'Dea by just one point, 48% to 47% — that in a state Biden won handily less than two years ago.
O'Dea has spent his campaign time listening to voters here. They discuss the impact inflation has had on their personal and professional lives. Business owners in places such as Snowmass and Aspen are struggling to find workers and stay open.
O'Dea says it is the same thing he hears over and over again as he travels across the state.
"I've been to 60 out of 64, the counties, between the primary and then here at the general election, and the No. 1 issue I'm hearing is economy," he said.
"It's inflation. It's how expensive things are and how they can't afford things that used to be staples in their lives. The price of gas, while it has come down, it is still over $1.25 a gallon more than it was a year ago. People are really, really feeling financially insecure, and they are having to make tough choices between kids being able to go on vacation, kids being able to play sports."
"And in lower-income areas," he adds, "it's a choice between filling up the car and heating the house. It's groceries at an all-time high, really, really strapping people that just, like I said, they're just not feeling financially secure at all."
The No. 2 issue, he says, is crime. "They don't feel secure," he said, "especially in some of the Denver areas and some of the more inner-city areas — people are really worried about crime here in Colorado."
Don't get him started on the homeless problem in the state, particularly in cities such as Denver and Boulder.
"It is more than housing," he said. "It's mental health. It's drug addiction. It's alcoholism. Those issues really kind of push these people out. They don't want to be in a situation where they have to check in with some of the facilities that are available, because they don't want to get off the drugs or get off the alcohol. This is not a compassionate way to take care of people that really need help."
O'Dea is not your father's Republican candidate, but he is also not former President Donald Trump's Republican candidate. He is his own man and someone whose personal story wraps around his approach to the issues.
He has been very vocal in hoping that the former president does not run again. Although that storyline fascinates Washington reporters, it is the other things he stands for that fascinate voters.
In terms of the crime rate, the Centennial State has the third-highest property crime rate in the United States — a number that represents a 9% increase year-over-year. Colorado's violent crime rate is slightly higher than the national average and has increased by 11% over 2021, according to data compiled by Safewise.
Inflation remains a serious problem in this state at 8.2%, down just a scant 0.1% from the 8.3% reported in May, and with energy costs up a whopping 9% over last year.
O'Dea says Colorado's not on the border but that problems such as gangs and drugs flooding the country don't end at the border. Colorado's overdose numbers are staggering, doubling in the last four years — mostly due to fentanyl.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said at least 1,881 Coloradans died from drug overdoses in 2021.
"Fentanyl has really got some people worried; it's killing our kids at record pace here in Colorado, we're, I think nationally, one of the highest areas for fentanyl," said O'Dea. "And so, when you talk to the police, they just tell you, 'Until this border gets shut down, this is going to be an ongoing problem here in Colorado.'"
The worker shortage has also hit hard, not only in the larger cities but also in the resort towns, whose lifeblood depends on the service industry. "We're seeing it across the state," he said.
"We've got to get this unemployment payment system under control here in Colorado. If you're continuing to use the excuse of COVID, or 'I might be impacted by it,' and staying off work and being on the dole, that's just not going to get us back to work here in Colorado."
O'Dea said, at one time, his Mile High Station business employed about 50 cocktail waitresses, bartenders and waiters.
"During COVID, we lost all of them," he said. "We were shut for 14 months, and we've only got 25 of the 50 back. I don't know where the rest of them are. I think some of them left the industry, just because it's volatile. But I think a lot of others, I've heard from people that they're fishing in the mountains and still collecting unemployment. And that's a problem."
O'Dea also says that Bennet is dead wrong on the so-called Inflation Reduction Act.
"I don't believe that it really is going to reduce inflation at all," he said. "And when you talk to people in the know on the economy, they say it might make a minor difference four or five years from now. Well, that doesn't do any good. I believe it's wrong to be taxing working Americans in a recession. And we're in a recession, even though Democrats don't want to define it that way."
O'Dea has come up in life the hard way — adopted at birth by a Denver police officer's family. He helped pay for his Catholic high school tuition by washing dishes at a local pizza shop.
He says he cut his college education short because he just wanted to get on with the business of making money.
"My wife and I started my company from our basement in 1983 with me changing attic fans," he said. "Today, we've built a company called CEI Constructors, that employs 300 families here in Colorado, 80% of them Hispanic."
His wife Celeste is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants.
Bennet is from the other side of the tracks, the son of a diplomat who then became the president of National Public Radio.
Bennet's education was the best of the best: St. Albans School in Washington and eventually Yale Law School. After a move to Colorado, he was appointed to the Denver city school superintendent's job.
Thirteen years ago, he was appointed to the position he holds now: senator.
The two-term incumbent, who ran for his party's nomination in 2020, styles himself as a centrist, but he has voted fairly consistently with his party since taking office.
"As far as I'm concerned, any politician who votes for the party line all the time is part of the problem, not part of the solution," said O'Dea. "That is not who I am. For me, Coloradans come first, not national parties."
Salena Zito has held a long, successful career as a national political reporter. Born and bred in Pittsburgh, she worked for the Pittsburgh Tribute-Review for 11 years. She has interviewed every U.S. president and vice president since 1992, as well as top leaders in Washington, D.C., including secretaries of state, speakers of the House and U.S. Central Command generals. Salena joined the New York Post in September 2016. She acts as a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. Read Salena Zito's Reports — More Here.