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U.S. Senator Michael Bennet answers questions to the media along side with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, at left, on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, during a visit at Camp Hale near Leadville. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Joe O’Dea, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Colorado, has a more moderate stance on abortion than many others in his party. 

O’Dea opposes “late-term” abortions — a term he has refused to fully define — as well as Colorado’s new law codifying abortion access in the state with very few exceptions. But he believes the procedure should be allowed early on in a pregnancy and that people who are the victims of rape or incest and mothers whose lives are at risk should be able to access an abortion at any time.

“I don’t support a total ban,” O’Dea said at a debate earlier this year. “The country is not 100% pro-life. The country is not 100% pro-choice.”

Still, Democrats see O’Dea’s stance on abortion as an area of weakness heading into the November election, as highlighted by a new television ad unveiled Thursday by Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, O’Dea’s opponent.

The ad, which will run for two weeks across the state, is Bennet’s first one attacking O’Dea. It’s an opening offensive that signals he plans to make abortion access, in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned in June after nearly five decades, a key pillar of his 2022 reelection campaign.  

Democrats up and down the ballot in Colorado this year, from the attorney general’s contest to the highly competitive new 8th Congressional District to legislative races that will decide which party controls the state Capitol, are running on a promise to protect abortion access.

Voters have repeatedly rejected efforts to restrict or outlaw abortions in Colorado, including in 2020 when they soundly rejected a ban after 22 weeks of pregnancy. And Democrats are highlighting how Republicans could try to change the status quo if they win back power in November.

The new Bennet ad features five women discussing their shock about the Roe v. Wade decision and highlighting the different abortion stances held by O’Dea and Bennet.

“It makes the race for Senate even more important,” one of the women says.

YouTube video

Bennet supports legislation prohibiting government restrictions on abortion access, according to his campaign, including the Women’s Health Protection Act

Justin Lamorte, Bennet’s campaign manager, said abortion-rights advocates “know the choice for U.S. Senate is not even close,” touting the senator’s endorsements from groups like Planned Parenthood.

The Bennet ad harkens back to former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s 2014 unsuccessful reelection bid, where the Democrat highlighted then-U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner’s opposition to abortion. Udall’s focus on the issue aimed to draw in women voters, but it also earned him the derisive nickname “Mark Uterus” from Republicans.

While women voted for Udall, a lower percentage of women showed up at the polls, and men voted even more strongly for Gardner, allowing the Republican to defeat the incumbent. 

The Denver Post endorsed Gardner in 2014, writing “contrary to Udall’s tedious refrain, Gardner’s election would pose no threat to abortion rights.” In 2019, the Post recanted the endorsement. And Gardner, who helped put the justices on the Supreme Court who overturned Roe v. Wade, lost to Democratic U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper in 2020.

While Gardner’s abortion opposition was fairly clear, O’Dea, who was panned by some Republicans during the U.S. Senate primary for being too weak on the issue,  has left some notable gaps in his stance. 

He opposes late-term abortions, but he hasn’t defined what constitutes an early term or late-term abortion, except to say that abortions should be banned in the last three months of pregnancy.

“It has something to do with viability,” O’Dea, who opposed Roe v. Wade being overturned, said during a Sun debate when pressed on his position. “I don’t believe that I get to weigh in on that.”

Joe O’Dea, Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Michael Bennet, speaks during a primary election night watch party late Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

O’Dea also opposes tax dollars being spent on abortions and believes that religious institutions shouldn’t be required to carry out the procedure. Finally, he believes parents should be notified before their child has an abortion.

O’Dea has touted support from anti-abortion advocates and called himself “pro-life.”

Colorado Republicans have mostly stayed away from campaigning on abortion restrictions this year in what appears to be a concession to popular opinion on the issue in the state.

Colorado House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, for instance, refused to say during a meeting with reporters after the legislative session whether his Republican caucus would attempt to limit or ban abortion in the state if they win a majority in November.

Asked recently how the GOP plans to speak to voters on abortion, Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown sidestepped the question. 

“The Democrats would like you to think that’s what people are concerned about,” Burton Brown, who entered politics through her anti-abortion work, said at a news conference earlier this month with Republican candidates. “What they’re actually concerned about are gas prices, grocery prices, crime and their kids’ schools. Those are the only issues we hear at the door.”

Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown speaks during a “Commitment to Colorado” news conference at a Sinclair gas station on Monday, August 9, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

And while restricting abortion may not be central to the Colorado GOP’s platform this year, there are individual Republicans running for office for whom the issue is front and center. 

Eighteen of the 39 Republicans in the state House and Senate signed a letter criticizing Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ recent executive order blocking Colorado’s state entites from cooperating with abortion investigations initiated in other states.

“In nearly every case, rape excepted, life is naturally created by the conscious choice of two individuals aware of the potential outcome of their decisions,” the letter said. “Nowhere in law or morals is it otherwise acceptable to end a life because of the imposition of personal hardship or inconvenience resulting from one’s own deliberate actions.”

The letter concluded that “life begins at conception.”

While many of the GOP lawmakers who signed the letter won’t be returning to the legislature next year either because they have reached their term limits or because they decided not to run for reelection, some will or may be returning to the Capitol in 2023. 

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet answers questions to the media along side with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, at left, on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, during a visit at Camp Hale near Leadville. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

That includes Reps. Matt Soper of Delta and Stephanie Luck of Penrose and Sens. Kevin Priola of Henderson and Dennis Hisey of Colorado Springs.

In the 8th Congressional District, state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, the Republican nominee, believes abortions should be banned except when the life of a mother is at risk. Her Democratic opponent, state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, is making that position a key line of attack heading into November. 

“I’ve been very transparent, very open about my position on abortion,” Kirkmeyer said. “It’s a settled question in this state, so I don’t know why they want to keep bringing it back up other than for political reasons. People know who I am.”

Laura Chapin, a spokeswoman for the abortion rights group Cobalt, laughed when told Republicans think abortion won’t be a deciding issue for voters in November.

“That all changed on June 24,” she said, referencing the date the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

A ballot measure restricting abortion may not be on the Colorado ballot in November as it was recently in Kansas, where voters turned out en masse to reject a proposal to remove abortion protections from the state constitution, but Chapin points out that Republican candidates who opposed the abortion-access bill passed by the state legislature this year, called the Reproductive Health Equity Act, are. 

“Any Republican who says this is settled law in Colorado didn’t pay attention to Kansas,” Chapin said. “Do you want to keep (the Reproductive Health Equity Act)? It’s on the ballot.” 

Gov. Jared Polis signs an abortion rights bill into law on April 4, 2022, in Denver. The bill, following the longest House debate in state history, states that pregnant individuals have the right to give birth or have an abortion. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Another contest where abortion is taking center stage is in the attorney general’s race. 

At a candidate forum earlier this month, both Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser and his Republican opponent, John Kellner, vowed to fight to uphold the Reproductive Health Equity Act against any legal challenges.

“Colorado, through its legislature, has spoken on the issue,” Kellner said. “And, frankly, the people have spoken on this issue multiple times at the ballot box as well. As the attorney general, I can commit to you that I will defend the law.”

But Weiser and fellow Democrats criticized Kellner for his response — or lack thereof — to a lightning-round question during the forum about whether he supports a woman’s right to access abortion.

“I don’t think I can give you a bumper-sticker answer for this,” Kellner said. “It is just simply — I think like most Americans — too nuanced of a position to be able to tell you a yes or no answer to that.”

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...