Big donors, corporate interests back O’Dea’s bid to close fundraising gap with Bennet

Spending on 2022 Colorado Senate race unlikely to match $105 million Gardner-Hickenlooper showdown

By: - July 21, 2022 2:22 pm

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

When all is said and done, Colorado’s 2022 U.S. Senate race will almost certainly attract tens of millions of dollars in campaign spending by both Democrats and Republicans — but, bucking a recent trend, it’s unlikely to be the most expensive ever.

Through June 30, incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and his Republican rival, Denver construction CEO Joe O’Dea, have reported a little over $8 million in campaign expenditures. Even accounting for independent super PAC expenditures — topped by the $4 million spent by Democrats to boost O’Dea’s far-right primary rival, state Rep. Ron Hanks — that’s well behind the pace of Colorado’s Senate contest two years ago, when former GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper and their supporters ultimately spent a combined $105 million in one of the year’s most-watched congressional races.

While Democrats are widely expected to lose ground in November’s midterm elections, Bennet isn’t generally viewed as one of 2022’s most vulnerable Senate Democrats, with races in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and other states rated as more competitive.

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Republicans, however, are promising to bring the fight to Bennet, with Axios reporting this week that GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared at an O’Dea fundraiser in Washington, D.C., to declare that his party is “all-in in Colorado.”

O’Dea drew criticism from fellow Republicans for qualifying for the June primary ballot through petition signatures — a route that avoided a state GOP assembly dominated by far-right conspiracy theorists but cost at least $221,500 in canvassing expenditures, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

O’Dea covered those and other primary campaign costs with funds raised in large part from wealthy donors, in addition to self-funding his campaign with $1.6 million in personal contributions and loans, FEC disclosures show. More than half of the funds O’Dea raised through June 30 came from donors contributing the maximum of $5,800 under federal law, compared to the Bennet campaign’s 29%.

O’Dea, who describes himself as a “working Coloradan running to be a champion for working Americans,” has received less than 4% of his campaign funds to date from small donors contributing less than $200. By contrast, small donors account for 22% of Bennet’s total fundraising.

Among the donors contributing the maximum to O’Dea’s campaign are established GOP figures like Bruce Benson and Terry Considine, meatpacking heiress Kaye Monfort and a long list of senior executives at his company, Concrete Express Inc., and other Colorado construction firms.

Many of those same donors have contributed to a super PAC supporting O’Dea’s candidacy, American Policy Fund. Its top contributors include construction executives Bruce Wagner and Jeff Keller, as well as ranch equipment manufacturer Hutchison Inc. and Transwest Automotive Group. Super PACs are authorized under federal law to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose a candidate.

Over the course of a week in late June, American Policy Fund also received a major infusion of cash from Colorado's fossil fuel industry, topped by a $100,000 donation from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association on June 24. Separate contributions from companies and industry figures including Liberty Oilfield Services, DCP Operating and Bayswater CEO Steve Struna added another $190,000.

Those funds helped cover the pro-O'Dea super PAC's last-minute primary spending spree on ads opposing Hanks, which totaled over $467,000 between June 21 and 28, FEC records show.

O'Dea defeated Hanks, a first-term state lawmaker and a leading figure in Colorado's election-denial movement, by nine points in the June 28 primary, according to unofficial results. His victory came despite a controversial effort by Democrats to boost Hanks' bid with ads labeling him "too conservative" and highlighting O'Dea's history of donating to Democratic campaigns.

Democratic Colorado, the super PAC that funded the ads attacking Hanks and O'Dea, filed its first required campaign finance disclosure on Wednesday, revealing that the group was entirely funded by the Democrats' Senate Majority PAC. In a statement, JB Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, said the group "worked to weaken both (candidates') campaigns."

“Our efforts forced O’Dea to burn through cash, embrace Trump, and show his true colors as a rubber stamp for Mitch McConnell and a dangerous MAGA agenda that is totally out of step with the voters who will decide the general election in Colorado,” Poersch said.

In his quest for a third full Senate term, Bennet enters the general election phase with a major financial advantage, with more than $8 million in cash on hand — nearly ten times what O'Dea reported after a hard-fought primary win. Though O'Dea is poised to enjoy a fundraising surge after officially securing the nomination — he received a $46,500 transfer from the National Republican Senatorial Committee one day after the primary — he has a long way to go to offset Bennet's advantage.

Bennet began airing his first television ad of the election cycle on Thursday, touting "common sense" proposals like a ban on stock trading by members of Congress and his pledge not to accept campaign contributions from corporate PACs.

The incumbent Democrat raised $1.2 million in the first quarter of 2021 alone, and has gradually increased his quarterly haul to over $3.3 million in the most recent reporting period. Meanwhile, O'Dea, who launched his campaign in October 2021, reported raising just $976,851 from outside contributors last quarter, by far his largest haul to date.

With Election Day less than four months away, O'Dea's campaign has reported just over $2.6 million in expenditures. By contrast, at the same point two years ago, Hickenlooper had already reported spending over $10.8 million in his bid to unseat Gardner.

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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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