Hanks, O’Dea make final pitches to Denver Republicans ahead of U.S. Senate primary

Hoping to unseat Sen. Bennet, GOP Senate candidates offer starkly different views on electability

By: - June 22, 2022 5:00 am

State Rep. Ron Hanks of Penrose, a candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks to a gathering of GOP primary voters on June 21, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

With just a week remaining before votes are counted in Colorado’s 2022 primary election, Republican U.S. Senate hopefuls Joe O’Dea and state Rep. Ron Hanks made their closing arguments to potential voters in Denver on Tuesday.

The two candidates spoke separately to a small gathering hosted by the Denver GOP at St. John’s Church in Washington Park, fielding questions from moderators and attendees about inflation, abortion, immigration and other issues ahead of next week’s primary, which will determine which Republican takes on incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in November in what is expected to be a challenging midterm election for President Joe Biden’s party.

“If you look at the polling that was out a couple weeks ago, 80% of the country thinks we’re headed in the wrong direction,” O’Dea, a Denver construction executive, told the crowd. “The most astounding thing about that same poll is that 16% think we’re headed in the right direction. I have yet to meet one of those people … I think that speaks to mental health here a little bit in Colorado.”

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In the final days of an increasingly contentious GOP primary, Hanks and O’Dea have clashed over differing theories of electability in a general-election matchup against Bennet, and over which candidate better represents the principles and priorities of the conservative base.

Both have harshly attacked Biden and endorsed a potential 2024 comeback for former President Donald Trump. Both speak eagerly about the need to slash federal spending and regulatory programs; both call for the completion of Trump’s border wall; both oppose a bipartisan package of modest gun reforms pending in Congress; and both have rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus that a rapid transition away from fossil fuels is necessary to avert catastrophic climate change.

O’Dea, however, has staked out more moderate positions on some issues, voicing support for a limited right to abortion early in pregnancy and for the bipartisan infrastructure law passed by Congress last year. As the primary race has heated up, the first-time candidate and his supporters — including much of Colorado’s Republican establishment — have been frank in centering electability concerns in a state that has trended Democratic in recent elections, labeling Hanks “an unserious candidate who has zero chance of winning.”

Hanks, a former Air Force intelligence officer elected to the state House of Representatives in 2020, took the top spot on the ballot by defeating five other candidates at the Colorado GOP’s state assembly in April. He has repeatedly spread debunked conspiracy theories alleging widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and he admitted to crossing police lines while protesting outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“I did go to Jan. 6, the peaceful rally with a million concerned Americans,” Hanks said to applause from the audience Tuesday.

Joe O'Dea
Republican Senate primary candidate Joe O’Dea hosts a Denver campaign rally at Ironworks on April 10, 2022. (Courtesy of Sage Naumann, O’Dea campaign)

Polling has shown that, like Hanks, more than three-quarters of GOP voters continue to believe the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Significant majorities of Republicans also share Hanks’ opposition to codifying abortion rights in federal, and to federal infrastructure spending, polls show.

Hanks, who once called on “foreign intelligence agencies” to intervene to stop Biden’s inauguration, issued dark warnings to event attendees about a wide range of threats to U.S. national security, suggesting that Republicans “frankly … have one realistic shot at making this country whole again in this election cycle.” And he offered a starkly different vision for the GOP’s electoral strategy in November, arguing that conservatives must draw a sharper contrast between themselves and their “feeble-minded” and “inept” opponents.

“That’s why this is a winnable race,” he said. “We have to get stronger, we have to fight harder, we have to hold more of our line.”

Super PAC spending shakes up race

O’Dea has said that he accepts Biden’s 2020 victory as legitimate — a position that pollsters and prominent GOP pundits say is a prerequisite for a general-election candidate who hopes to unseat Bennet. But with a closely contested Republican primary looming, the candidate struck a different tone with the potential voters at Tuesday’s event, calling for drastic steps like purges of inactive voter registrations — measures that voting-rights advocates say disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Americans each election year.

“We’ve got problems here in Colorado. Nobody will deny them,” O’Dea said. “One of the problems is that 50% of the people in this party and others believe that there’s a problem with our electorate — and they’re probably right. There are problems at every level.”

Despite O’Dea’s significant fundraising advantage, the Senate primary was shaken up this month by a last-minute ploy by Democratic Colorado, a newly registered super PAC that has spent more than $2.4 million on TV and digital advertising to boost Hanks’ profile and undermine O’Dea’s appeal with right-wing voters. One of the group’s ads highlights Hanks’ conservative bona fides, including his support for a border wall and 2020 election denial, while another draws attention to O’Dea’s history of contributing to Democratic campaigns.

“They don’t want to see me on the ticket,” O’Dea said Tuesday. “You know why? Because I’m going to beat Michael Bennet by five points.”

O’Dea explained that he had donated to Democrats, including Bennet’s 2010 campaign, when he served as the president of the Colorado Contractors Association and “got asked to go to some lunches.”

O’Dea has also benefited from deep-pocketed super PAC spending. American Policy Fund, which has collected five- and six-figure donations from O’Dea allies in Colorado and Texas, has reported at least $595,000 in independent expenditures on the candidate’s behalf since April, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures.

Hanks, who has dubbed his opponent “Pay-to-Play O’Dea,” took aim at O’Dea’s support for limited abortion rights on Tuesday — along with several of the event’s attendees. Following a short speech and a series of questions from a moderator, O’Dea took three further questions from the crowd; two of the three questioners pressed O’Dea on what one called his “pro-abortion” stance, before the candidate said he had to leave for another event.

Addressing the crowd later, Hanks said it was a “time for choosing” for Colorado Republicans.

“This primary election is going to come down to that issue first and foremost,” he said. “Are we a pro-life party, or aren’t we? I will tell you, I am pro-life, and my opponent is not. End of story.”

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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