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Michael Bennet elected to his third U.S. Senate term as Colorado voters reject Republican Joe O’Dea

Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet responds to a question during a televised debate with Republican challenger Joe O'Dea on Oct. 28, on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)
If Bennet, a Democrat, serves his full six-year term, he will become Colorado’s longest-serving U.S. senator in the century since state legislatures stopped selecting senators

GREENWOOD VILLAGE – Colorado voters sent Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet back to Washington for a third six-year term Tuesday, rejecting Republican Joe O’Dea, a first-time candidate and Denver construction company owner.

Bennet was leading O’Dea with 55% of the vote to O’Dea’s 43% as of Wednesday evening. The Associated Press called the race about an hour after the polls closed.

In Montezuma County, O’Dea led Bennet 55.02% to 41.86% in a preliminary tally. In La Plata County, Bennet led 59% to 38%.

If Bennet, who was appointed to the Senate in 2009, serves his full term he will become Colorado’s longest-serving U.S. senator in the century since state legislatures stopped selecting senators.

Republicans hoped O’Dea, a moderate who distanced himself from former President Donald Trump and even once donated to Bennet, could pull off an upset in Colorado, where President Joe Biden won in 2020 by 13 percentage points.

National political observers mused all summer that O’Dea, who ran a campaign focused on the economy and Biden’s unpopularity, had a real chance, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell even called O’Dea “the perfect candidate.” A parade of big-name Republican politicians visited Colorado to stump for O’Dea.

There were signs Democrats were worried about O’Dea, too. They spent millions in the Republican U.S. Senate primary in support of O’Dea’s rival, state Rep. Ron Hanks, an ardent 2020 election denier.

But for all the positive talk, national GOP groups never really came to O’Dea’s financial aid, leaving the candidate with the tall – and very pricey – task of trying to both introduce himself to voters and make a case against Bennet.

“You know what, sometimes fundraising counts,” O’Dea told reporters on Monday as he dropped off his ballot in Greenwood Village, brushing off the lack of national GOP support. “But when the message is about working Americans here in Colorado, that’s what counts.”

The results Tuesday indicate the money did make a sizable difference.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and Joe O’Dea. (Bennet: Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline O’Dea: Courtesy of Sage Naumann/O’Dea campaign)

Democratic groups outspent Republican groups in the Senate race nearly two to one. And while O’Dea gave his campaign nearly $5 million, including $2 million in the final weeks of the race, he couldn’t keep up with Bennet’s campaign fundraising machine.

Bennet, who didn’t self-fund his campaign like O’Dea, spent more than $20 million, including at least $8.5 million on TV advertising.

Democratic groups injected nearly $16 million into the race. Bennet had support from LCV Victory Fund, a conservation group; 53 Peaks, a super PAC funded by the dark-money nonprofit Majority Forward, which is affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat; Giffords PAC, which works for gun violence prevention; and a PAC run by the National Association of Realtors.

Many of the TV ads run by pro-Bennet groups attacked O’Dea’s stance on abortion – that the procedure should be banned after 20 weeks of pregnancy and only be allowed later in cases of rape and incest or when a mother’s life is at risk or a fetus isn’t viable.

The ads were targeted at voters like Ruby Clyburn, a 21-year-old Democrat who lives in Rifle and cast her ballot Tuesday in Glenwood Springs. She said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 precedent guaranteeing a minimal level of abortion rights, was very concerning. She said it was at the top of her mind when she voted in this election.

Clyburn, who works as a server at the Smoke Modern Barbecue restaurant in downtown Glenwood Springs, said she spent a significant amount of time researching candidate positions on women’s rights and only voted for those who she felt had a strong record on the issue. (She declined to say who she specifically voted for.)

“It’s just scary right now what’s going on with women’s rights,” she said.

Political action committees supporting O’Dea, by comparison, spent about $8.6 million.

Most of O’Dea’s super PAC support came from the American Policy Fund. That group received $1.25 million from the Senate Leadership Fund, the well-funded PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. American Policy Fund also received $4 million from Wyomingite Timothy Mellon, grandson of banking tycoon Andrew Mellon; $1 million from investor Paul Singer; as well as money from several Colorado contracting companies and their owners.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the other deep-pocketed national GOP group that works to elect U.S. senators, didn’t spend much in Colorado, however.

Left mostly to his own devices, O’Dea on the stump blamed Bennet for inflation and labeled the senator as ineffective.

And the message worked for some voters. Karla Murphy, an unaffiliated voter from Aurora, attended an O’Dea rally at JJ’s Place in Aurora the night before the election.

“It’s high gas prices, high groceries and all our energy costs are going up,” she said. “It’s not a Republican and Democrat thing, it’s survival for the middle class.”

But ultimately, O’Dea never led Bennet in any public polling.

“We always run these races like I’m 20 points behind,” Bennet told reporters as he cast his ballot a week before Election Day. “That’s how we won in 2010, in a really tough year. And we won in 2016, another tough year. And I think that’s how we’re gonna win this year as well.”

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Colorado Sun reporters Chris Outcalt and Elliott Wenzler contributed to this report.