If you think it strange that the Michael Bennet-Joe O’Dea U.S. Senate race has gotten so much national buzz recently — a race that Bennet had been expected to win easily — it might be even stranger than you think.
Hardly anyone thought Colorado would matter in determining who controls the Senate next year. The conventional wisdom was that Bennet, a Democrat, would win, but that Republicans would have an easy time retaking what is presently a 50-50 Senate. You know the midterm calculus by now. The party out of power usually wins a majority of contested seats, in what is sometimes called a shellacking. Sometimes a thumping. You get the idea.
And the chance of a shellacking is especially in play when the president has weak approval ratings, which basically describes Joe Biden’s numbers, although they have been slowly improving after an unexpectedly strong Democratic showing in Congress in August.
But thanks to Donald Trump, who has pushed a number of Trumpist crazies to victory in GOP primaries, Republicans are suddenly worried they won’t retake the Senate. In fact, Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com now gives the Democrats a 67% chance to keep the Senate. Even Mitch McConnell has complained about the “quality” of some Republican candidates — the ones Trump picked because they embraced the Big Lie or looked good on TV or for meeting other Trumpian criteria.
So Republicans, if they wanted to turn this around, needed to find Democrats they could possibly beat. Bennet — a good senator but with a smallish footprint — has won two Senate races, but didn’t exactly run away with either of them. And they also needed to find Republican candidates in swing states who aren’t election deniers or, maybe even worse, would-be abortion banners. That could describe Joe O’Dea, a first-time office seeker who had basically no footprint a few months ago.
So, some Republican funders, who are withdrawing money from races that figured to be close — say, Pennsylvania and Arizona — are moving it to Colorado.
I’m not sure who’s more to blame — Trump, who’s nearly always my first choice, or McConnell, who usually runs a close second. Either would suffice. But this time, given that the race may come down to the newly minted Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, you should start with McConnell, who made it possible for Trump to place three right-wing justices on the Court in his four years in office.
In doing so, Trump and McConnell were able to change a moderately conservative Supreme Court into among the most radical in memory.
It took a lot of ugly politicking and shameless hypocrisy to make this happen. But ugly politicking and shameless hypocrisy are, of course, McConnell’s bread and butter — served, for special occasions, with a little jam on top.
Anyway, you know the whole sordid story, which has been told and retold and will be told over and over again — or at least until America decides to rejoin the 21st century. Republican politicians have been running against abortion for years, often while supporting, or at least voting for, personhood — the theory that life begins at conception. But after years of Roe as settled law, we were assured by people like Susan Collins that Roe would be safe.
We know how that worked out. When the GOP finally pulled off this long-awaited victory against Roe, many of us used the dog-catching-the-bus/car metaphor. What does the dog do now?
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Now we know. This dog not only caught the bus, but then began dismantling the engine even as passengers looked on in horror. Legislatures in red states wasted no time in passing very restrictive — in some cases, totally restrictive — anti-abortion laws.
You could say this is the new normal, but what the GOP seemed to forget is that most Americans favor Roe v. Wade and oppose a decision making it easier to ban or severely limit abortion.
And now there are suddenly examples of longtime antiabortionists running for office in swing states who are scrubbing their web sites of their past positions while trying to say as little as possible about what a new one would look like.
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Which brings us back to Bennet and O’Dea. Give O’Dea credit, I guess. He was certainly ahead of the curve in announcing that though he was personally pro-life, he didn’t want to see Roe overturned. And he’s not in the Big Lie camp. Otherwise, he’s your basic Republican, but he was running against Ron Hanks in the Colorado primary and Hanks can give Lauren Boebert a close run in the crazy sweepstakes.
You don’t need to understand how you can be both pro-life and pro-Roe — a couple of Democrats do something similar — to understand the politics. Colorado is a strongly pro-abortion-rights state. The GOP has routinely put anti-abortion politics to a vote in Colorado and has been routinely rejected. This comes as no surprise. Just check out this poll, as one example, from the Pew Research Center, showing that 59% of Coloradans support legalizing all or most abortions.
In the last Colorado referendum on abortions — there have been four since 2008 — antiabortinists tried a more moderate position than usual, one that would ban abortions after 22 weeks, except in the case of saving the mother’s life.
Only 1% of abortions, we’re told, take place after 22 weeks, and so this would be a referendum on late-term abortions, right? And yet the vote ….
The folks at Pew should take a bow. Coloradans turned it down by a 59% to 41% vote. It didn’t help that the, uh, more moderate bill rejected abortions after 22 weeks in cases of rape, incest, and health of mother and/or baby.
You take the Colorado vote and add it to the shocking vote in bright-red Kansas, where they voted overwhelmingly to keep abortion legal, and you can see where we are. Throw in Bennet’s strong support for the expanded child tax credit law — which lifted 40% of children out of poverty — but was allowed to sunset after a year, with no Republican support. And you can really see where we are.
Suddenly, it’s Republicans who now don’t want to talk about abortion. O’Dea says he doesn’t want to talk about culture wars at all, which has made McConnell very happy.
But — and you knew there’d be a but — Bennet has raised a lot more money than O’Dea and, what’s more, he has something to spend it on.
For example, O’Dea has said he hopes Trump doesn’t run in 2024, but he then backtracked, saying that he would vote for Trump if he did run. Trump, you might remember, has lost twice in Colorado, the last time by 13 points. And that was before there was a January 6 riot, an attempt to steal the election, and Trump’s obsession with super top-secret documents.
But then there’s O’Dea’s moderate-for-a-Republican stance on abortion. The question is whether moderate is good enough. And the answer is — we’ll see in November — maybe not. Bennet, still the favorite, has already attacked O’Dea on, yes, abortion.
And with reason. The Colorado Sun broke the story that O’Dea voted for the last Colorado abortion referendum, which would have outlawed abortion after 22 weeks — because, he said, he opposes late-term abortions. For months, O’Dea refused to define what late-term means. It was only after that story ran that O’Dea finally settled on 20 weeks, but with exceptions for rape, incest and health of the mother.
Of course, a 20-week abortion limit is not as many as the 22 weeks that Coloradans overwhelmingly turned away. And the thing is, as Bennet will point out from now until November, it doesn’t really matter if O’Dea is more moderate than typical Republicans on the issue. What matters is how he’d vote in the Senate.
If Republicans win the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2024 — with a would-be Sen. O’Dea having supported Trump — you can expect a vote on something relatively close to a national ban on abortions. Would O’Dea really buck his party? Maybe.
But maybe more to the point, if Democrats are in power, they would clearly try to codify Roe, making abortions legal everywhere. If there’s a Sen. O’Dea, how would he vote on that one? A Democratic bill would look a lot like the Colorado law that passed the legislature this year and that O’Dea said he opposed.
Look, we’ve already seen horror stories. Ten-year-old pregnant rape victims. Laws that wouldn’t allow a woman to cross state lines — that really is “Handmaid’s Tale” territory — to get an abortion. Doctors refusing to perform abortions because they might end up in jail, even when abortions are clearly necessary.
And here’s the question that Colorado voters would take with them to the polls (or more likely the mailbox): How would these stories be resolved with Bennet in a Democratic Senate or with O’Dea in a Republican Senate? I wouldn’t be surprised if Coloradans’ answer to that question also decides who wins.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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