We should have seen this coming, I guess. In what has to be the strangest twist in Joe O’Dea’s underdog bid to unseat Sen. Michael Bennet, O’Dea has somehow become embroiled in what may well be the first battle of the 2024 Republican presidential primary between Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It was strange enough when O’Dea apparently decided that in order to defeat Bennet, he needed to enlist Trump’s, uh, help.

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But it was a strange kind of help, the kind that began with O’Dea bad-mouthing Trump on a Sunday news show. At the time, I thought it was either a brilliant move or a sign of desperation, but I wasn’t sure which.

O’Dea had to know that that the former guy would react angrily, and, of course, he did, with thin-skinned Trump calling O’Dea a “stupid” RINO and basically telling his MAGA base not to vote for the Colorado Republican Senate candidate in his race against Bennet.

As we watched Trump explode, we learned at least two things that should have been already obvious. One, Trump doesn’t really care which party controls the Senate at any time he is not currently residing in the White House. So sure, if a fellow Republican comes after him, he’ll come back that much harder.

Two, in order to possibly win in a bluish state that Trump lost by more than 13 points only two years ago, O’Dea — who is trailing Bennet by 7-8 points in the polls — clearly needed more separation from Trump.

And so when saying, as he had said before, that he hoped Trump wouldn’t run in 2024, O’Dea didn’t stop there this time. He actually went on to say he would actively campaign against Trump in a Republican primary and touted, among likely Trump opponents, Florida’s own mini-Trump, Ron DeSantis.

And for good measure, O’Dea added, “I’m going to do my job as a U.S. senator to make sure that they have good campaigns in the primary here, so we have a good selection of candidates for 2024.” Meaning a selection that is not Trump. It’s hard to get much starker than that.

Of course Trump would attack O’Dea, making him everything DeSantis could ask for in a GOP candidate. DeSantis has been hesitant to take on Trump directly, but maybe when he learned from Maggie Haberman’s new book, “Confidence Man,” that Trump had been privately calling DeSantis “whiny,” “phony” and “fat,” he decided to raise the stakes.

And so DeSantis, who apparently doesn’t know O’Dea at all, recorded a robocall praising O’Dea, presumably, although he made sure not to say so, for opposing Trump and name-checking him. 

To which Trump responded on his personal social media site, “BIG MISTAKE.”

Here’s the content of the robocall, as first reported in the Washington Examiner: “Hello, this is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. America needs strong leadership and desperately. That’s why I’m endorsing Joe O’Dea for U.S. Senate. Colorado, please vote for Joe O’Dea. I’ve watched Joe from a distance. And I’m impressed.”

It’s not likely that if DeSantis has been watching O’Dea that he’s actually impressed. O’Dea is trying to present himself as that rare thing these days — a moderate Republican who wants voters to believe, for example, that he can be both pro-life and pro-Roe v. Wade simultaneously. In fact, O’Dea is doing whatever he can to steer clear of the culture wars that have helped doom many Republicans in Colorado statewide races.

DeSantis, of course, is a hard-right conservative who fights culture wars wherever he can find them. He fights with Disney. With his Don’t Say Gay law, he’s a leading figure in the pushback against transgender rights. Don’t get him started on Critical Race Theory, abortion, freedom of speech for professors, or, well, you name it. He rails against Fauci, against any kind of mandated vaccine. He grabbed headlines by sending an operative to Texas to apparently trick mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers into taking a plane to Martha’s Vineyard and dropping them in that rich, liberal haven.

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With one move, DeSantis owned the libs, outplayed Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — who had been keeping busy by busing asylum seekers to New York, D.C. and Chicago — and tossed a let’s-see-you-top-this challenge to a reportedly angry Trump. Oh, yeah, and he also used actual desperate human beings as pawns in what was a third-rate stunt. Or actually much worse.

I’m sure Bennet will be reminding voters of O’Dea’s burgeoning friendship with a politician who makes Ted Cruz look, say, woke. Of course, for O’Dea, it’s hard to be a moderate wannabe and find many Republicans to hang out with. I mean, he’d already written off a bunch of them by saying he thought Biden was actually elected president in 2020.

It’s bad enough for O’Dea that he is on the same ticket with Heidi Ganahl, who has gone all MAGA in her run for governor against Jared Polis. Maybe O’Dea could get Liz Cheney to campaign for him. OK, you’re right. That wouldn’t work either.

Anyway, it makes the Bennet-O’Dea race that much more interesting. It sets up a battle in Colorado MAGA country on whether to abandon O’Dea, as Trump has advised, or to support him, as DeSantis is urging. We probably won’t really know who wins the Trump-DeSantis competition in Colorado, but if O’Dea loses, you can be sure that Trump will claim the credit.

At this moment, it.does look like Trump will run for president again and that DeSantis, his one-time ally,  will run against him. And also at this moment, O’Dea must be hoping that when 2024 rolls around, DeSantis still remembers who he is.

To make that happen, all O’Dea would have to do is to overcome the odds, defy the pollsters and win his Senate race in bluish Colorado. He wouldn’t have to wait too long. Once the midterms are over — and with the expected phony challenges that may take a while to be litigated  — the 2024 race begins.

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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Mike Littwin

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: milittwin@gmail.com Twitter: @mike_littwin