Sep 14, 2022 - Politics

Democrats see Joe O'Dea as Cory Gardner 2.0, but now they're ready

Illustration of an elephant with a red "new" sticker.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

It's déjà vu for Democrats in Colorado.

Flashback: Eight years ago, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Cory Gardner pitched himself as a folksy outsider and hardworking moderate, drawing national praise and independent support on his path to unseating a Democratic incumbent in a midterm election.

Flash-forward: This year, Republican Joe O'Dea is charting a similar course. He casts himself as a moderate and "not a politician," luring national attention and money in his bid to upset Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

  • But this time, Democrats are ready for him.

Between the lines: The party misplayed Gardner in 2014, strategists say, by allowing him to set the narrative, muddy the waters on key campaign issues and to define himself as something he wasn't.

  • Gardner vowed to "shake up the Senate" and pledged to call out his party when wrong, but mostly backed former President Trump's agenda.

What's new: Learning from past mistakes, the Bennet campaign and its allies are taking the 2022 race seriously and deploying a new strategy.

What they're saying: "Joe O'Dea is not going to sneak past us," Democratic strategist Ian Silverii tells Axios Denver.

  • "There were a lot of people who said they thought [Gardner] was a normal guy, not one of those guys who would vote with" GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell, said Silverii, who organized opposition that led to Gardner's 2020 defeat. "There are a lot of people who say, 'I won't get tricked again.'"

The impact: Democrats' moves have forced O'Dea to answer tough questions and clarify his stance on multiple issues. On abortion, he's tried to appeal to both sides of the debate, and said he would bring "balance to women's rights."

The other side: Republican strategists still see promise in O'Dea using Gardner's path to victory, particularly given the parallel midterm political landscape with an unpopular Democratic president in the White House.

  • Like ousted Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in 2014, Bennet's brand is affiliated with Washington after a failed presidential run, his vocal support for Biden and his lengthy tenure, Republicans argue.

That's an effective point the GOP is using against the incumbent, says Republican strategist Matt Connelly, who worked on Gardner's 2014 campaign.

  • "When you have someone like Cory or O'Dea, they were very successful in making their brand one of a Washington, D.C., outsider," Connelly tells us.

Of note: One major difference between Gardner and O'Dea, strategists say: Gardner's experience in the political arena made him a far better campaigner than O'Dea, who's a political novice.

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