The immediate challenge facing the eight — and counting — hopefuls in the Republican primary for U.S. senator isn’t the incumbent. It’s anonymity.
When everyone shares a platform and a common enemy, it's hard to see much difference in nuanced talking points.
That’s why it was a win-win exchange when Fort Collins developer Gino Campana called out Denver developer Joe O’Dea when the latter was the only voice supporting the $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal that passed the U.S. House on Nov. 5, a jewel in the crown of President Joe Biden's legacy.
My colleague Ernest Luning was the only reporter immediately to put the GOP field on record, which caused Campana and O'Dea to step out of the scrum.
The display of strategy and political theater was the jolt this ill-defined race needed, especially if it’s going to shake off the dust of a foregone conclusion in Sen. Michael Bennet’s favor.
A pecking order matters, because politics runs on money, money suggests marketability and money follows competition.
The tiff put a bright light on O'Dea going his own way. His campaign calls him a different kind of Republican.
The question is whether he's the right kind of Republican, meaning one who can survive the primary, if hard-right conservatives stay on the course that's left them behind in Colorado the past five years.
I quizzed O'Dea on his approach in a Saturday morning chat.
"It shows that I'm a reasonable guy, and when you get down to it, if you want a no-government kind of guy, I'm not the guy," he said. "What I do know is we need to support our military. We need to fund our police. We need to build a secure border, which means get the wall back going. We need roads and bridges here. We need our infrastructure. We need to reduce the debt, so I'm going to be a guy who supports those things, and I'm going to be a guy that supports a smaller government."
In his announcement video, O’Dea talked about debt, spending and runaway inflation with a pledge to make cuts.
The other Senate hopefuls characterized the infrastructure deal as a budget-buster that's more pork-barrel lard than highway asphalt.
O'Dea stands outside the fire in other ways, too.
Here is a Republican contender with a history of donating to Democrats, including to Bennet in 2010. He contends, however, the 2010 Michael Bennet wouldn’t recognize the 2021 Michael Bennet, who, he said, is completely onboard with Biden. In 2010, though, Bennet voted in partisan lockstep with President Barack Obama 97% of the time, with Biden as second in command.
So, points for trying.
Bennet is beatable, but only if the Republican takes him on in the right way. Lobbing grenades from the far right in a left-trending state is pointless.
Bennet is not prone to gaffes because he is not prone to wander off message. Darryl Glenn, the GOP nominee in 2016, never wobbled Bennet from his moderate talking points. As a result, the incumbent barely broke a sweat, though the final margin of victory, 5.7 percentage points, was closer than the double-digit spread suggested by the polls the week before the election. Had Glenn run a campaign on a broader message, it would have been more interesting.
These Republicans would be foolish to repeat Glenn's mistakes.
Insiders who know him personally tell me Bennet's weakness is getting flustered when he's challenged, but he’s hard to pin down because he’s skilled at talking in circles, part lawyer, part politician. Pinning him down won't come from predictable political schtick, but rather getting him tangled up in what's good for his party versus what's good for his state (the topic of a future Insights).
The nominee will need an assist from Bennet's goofs, Biden's inflation and the general discontent of the electorate. To win back the middle, a new kind of Republican must have a new kind of message. Coloradans have spoken on Trump, twice, dealing him a 5-percentage point loss in 2016 and 13.5 points last year.
While O’Dea tries to keep a safe distance from Trump, his chief campaign operative is Jefferson Thomas, the Trump campaign's state director last year, a point his campaign flags for reporters and donors.
Thomas denounced Donald Trump on Jan. 6 via Twitter: “This isn’t what I ever imagined when I signed up to #MAGA. Had I known then that this is how it would end I never would have joined.”
I offered O'Dea an opening to distance himself from Trump once and for all.
"I think some of the policies that Trump pushed forward were excellent," he replied. "I’m going to stick to, ‘I’m me.’. And I'm going to stick to my message, which is working Americans, reducing the debt, funding our military and our police. And that's what I'm about."
Let's take stock: He supported the old Bennet but not the new Bennet. He's for smaller government and opposes spending, except on infrastructure, a border wall, funding the military and law enforcement. His campaign stands with Trump, except when it doesn't.
His opponents are shopping around the nickname “Every Way O’Dea.”
Every way, however, might prove to be the only way to rattle Bennet.
In today’s litmus-test partisan politics, however, that won't be easy. The risk is more immediate than the reward when it comes to being different.