Bennet, O’Dea spar on issues in final Colorado Senate debate

DENVER (AP) — Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican challenger Joe O’Dea clashed repeatedly in their final debate Friday over inflation, abortion and Bennet’s effectiveness during his 13 years in Congress.

O’Dea hammered Bennet for voting with President Joe Biden 98% of the time, blaming him for a spending spree that caused inflation and failing to secure the U.S. border with Mexico. But it was his use of a questionable statistic, that Bennet has only passed one bill in his 13 years in the Senate, that set off the normally soft-spoken Democratic senator.

“You’re a liar, Joe,” Bennet snapped.

O’Dea was referring to a lone standalone bill that Bennet authored, but that charge is potentially misleading because most senators, Bennet included, see the vast majority of the bills they write pass as part of larger packages. Bennet has had numerous measures pass that way, which he noted has included billions of dollars in wildfire and drought prevention and, in a separate measure, funding for rural areas to boost internet access.

O’Dea, a businessman and first-time candidate, kept repeating the statistic, using it to charge the often academic-sounding Bennet with incompetence.

“Michael Bennet doesn’t get results,” he said repeatedly. His campaign later said O’Dea was echoing the relatively low ranking of Bennet by the nonpartisan Center for Effective Lawmaking.

The event in the northern Colorado city of Ft. Collins was the only full debate aired on television as O’Dea tries to demonstrate a way for the GOP to win a state shifting toward Democrats. Former President Donald Trump lost Colorado by 13 percentage points in 2020.

O’Dea kicked off a feud with the former president — for whom he voted twice — by saying earlier this month that he’d support another candidate in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. Trump called O’Dea a “RINO” — a Republican In Name Only.

Still, Bennet kept tying O’Dea to Trump, repeatedly reminding his audience that his rival had voted twice before for the ex-president. “He voted for Donald Trump twice, after the children were separated from their mothers at the border,” Bennet said of O’Dea as he listed numerous controversies from the past president.

O’Dea has tried to focus the campaign on crime and inflation, which led to his sharpest attack on Bennet when he asked the Democratic senator about the $5 trillion in recent federal spending: “Do you regret the spending?”

“I regret the inflation that people are facing,” Bennet replied, adding that it was caused by “broken supply chains globally” and energy issues.

Bennet went on the attack on abortion, even though O’Dea is the rare Republican who backs abortion rights — at least through 20 weeks of pregnancy, after which he thinks the procedure should be banned. Bennet noted that only about 1% of abortions come after that date, all heartbreaking cases with a late-arriving health issue, he said.

The senator described “the reality of women having the worst experience of their life, the last thing they need is to have Joe O’Dea in there with them.”

O’Dea reiterated his support for abortion rights up to five months of pregnancy. “Michael Bennet has voted for abortion up to the moment of birth,” O’Dea said. “I think that’s extreme.”

In response to a question about when he’s disagreed with Biden, Bennet listed some of his objections to the president’s policies, including Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan, his trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this year and lifting a pandemic-related restriction on immigrants seeking asylum at the southern border.

O’Dea was asked about what priorities of the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, he might block. He said he did not think any more of former President Barack Obama’s health care law needed to be repealed.

Though national Republicans have admired O’Dea’s attempt to keep the race away from social issues, they have not invested much money in helping his campaign, a sign of the tough hill O’Dea has to climb to unseat Bennet.

Colorado Republicans have not won a top-tier race in the state since 2014, when Cory Gardner ousted Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. But Gardner was kicked out of office by the state’s voters in 2020 and he was the only top-of-the-ticket statewide Republican winner since 2004.