Turning point for GOP Senate candidate O’Dea came during pandemic

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 June 28, 2022, in Denver. O'Dea is the rare Republican Senate candidate who supports abortion rights, up until the latter stages of pregnancy, when he thinks a government ban on the procedure is justified.
David Zalubowski/AP

GOP Senate candidate Joe O’Dea stopped Thursday morning at the Two Rivers Café in old Basalt for a cup of coffee and a chat.

Grand Junction in the evening, Vail on Friday, this is campaign life on the Western Slope. Long days and no end to the miles, handshakes, stump speeches. He passed unrecognized now except for the reporter waiting to meet him.

No worries. He’ll be very well-known around here soon enough if he squeezes out a surprise victory in the election, which wouldn’t surprise him a bit. He’s counting on it.

This is standard election playbook, of course, and his first crack at running for anything, never mind the U.S. Senate. But it’s also the get ‘er done nature of the self-made CEO. Largely liberal Aspen knows the type even if not necessarily sharing his politics.

O’Dea defined himself as stubborn, a trait he believes will serve him well in the Senate. He bucks his party, as he put it, on some issues, most prominently abortion rights, siding more with Roe v. Wade than the current Supreme Court. He also supports same-sex marriage, acknowledges President Donald Trump lost in 2020 and calls for reform in immigration policy that harder-core conservatives might find suspiciously close to their notion of amnesty, along with that wall.

How will he deal with the other Republicans in the Senate when they push today’s party line beyond his beliefs?

“Just tell them I’m not going to vote with them,” he answered. “It’s pretty simple. I’d say, ‘You know what? That’s not going to be good for Colorado, and I’m not going to vote for that.’”

The two-point win he envisions would still leave almost half of Colorado who didn’t vote his way. He would make sure he was representing them well, too, he said.

“My approach would be to sit down with Sen. Hickenlooper after I’m elected and talk about all the things that he and I can share common ground. There’s a lot of things I think John has good ideas on. And I’m going to share my ideas on what our side thinks. Find the common ground about Colorado.”

He finds a sharp contrast here with incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, ready with statistics on his opponent voting with President Joe Biden 98% of the time, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York 99% of the time and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont 96% of the time.

“That’s not Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is more moderate than that.”

So what does he think about U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, drinking coffee here in her 3rd Congressional District?

 “Well, I would say the congresswoman does a good job of representing her constituency.” A smile. “She likes to be on TV. She likes to use her voice. I have respect for that.”

But that’s not him: “I’m not as controversial,” he said. “I like to work with people and talk to people. That’s kind of my stance. I’m not a screamer. I’m Joe. Let’s sit down, and let’s figure out how to make good policy and move the United States forward.”

And Liz Cheney, the now-former congresswoman in Wyoming who became the most prominent Republican to oppose Trump and take part in investigating his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol?

“I respect the fact she drew a line in the sand. I think it consumed her, and I’m not sure that was healthy for her constituents,” he said. “But I have a lot of respect for the fact that she said, ‘I’m going to take a stance on this.’”

As for the Trump presidency, O’Dea said he was not a fan of the president’s personality and thought he could have done without Twitter, but he embraced a lot of the Trump administration’s conservative policies. He thought Trump did a good job handling China, with border security, cutting taxes and 20% wage growth in his term.

But he doesn’t want Trump to run again, nor President Joe Biden, for that matter.

“It’s time to move our country forward,” O’Dea said. “One-sided policies just don’t work. You’ve got to listen to the other side. There has to be some give and take. I think America is ready for that. And that’s the basis of my campaign. I’m not going to be owned by either party.”

Why he’s running for Senate — the only office he’s sought, so far — might have roots in working as a union carpenter when a labor strike took away work and nudged him and a friend to take on their own projects, form a company and eventually see that company, Concrete Express Inc., grow to nearly 600 employees before the financial meltdown. It fell during the Great Recession to 150 employees before inching up and down to around 250 today, not counting the staffs at the event centers Mile High Station and Ironworks.

The pandemic was devastating, particularly for the event business. He became deeply concerned over unemployment fraud, what he saw as an overabundance of government handouts and the direction he saw the county heading.

“What we’re doing to ourselves is not good for our economy,” he said. “It’s not good for our work ethic. It’s not good for our youth.”

So he did what he credited as qualities for his business success — from jobs with buddies to building one of the largest construction enterprises in the state with friends and family.

That is, he said, he listened well. “And then not being afraid to say, ‘Hey, let’s jump in. Let’s do this.’ It’s just kind of my nature — to a fault sometimes.”

It got him to a point in life. And he’s done it again: jumping in, seeing if he can do this.  

Should he come up on the wrong side of those two points, what then?

“I’ve got a plan through Nov. 8 right now. It’s to win.”

And with that it was a thank you, a handshake and off to the next stop.