Sen. Michael Bennet faces abortion activists, Joe O’Dea, in Colorado Senate election

Standing on Aurora asphalt Tuesday, surrounded by fellow Democrats to officially mark a party office opening and unofficially kick off the start of the general election, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet levied a warning.

People are struggling, he said. The economy, when it is working, only works for the top 10% of the country, leaving the rest of Coloradans to struggle with housing, child care and education. The struggle is so real, he warned, that it imperils our democracy.

“That’s when somebody shows up and says, I alone can fix it,” Bennet, who is seeking his third term in the senate, said in Aurora. “You don’t need a democracy. You don’t need the rule of law. You should expect your country is hopelessly corrupt. That’s what happened when Donald Trump was elected.”

It’s a general election message Bennet hammered Tuesday afternoon, before voters named Republican businessman Joe O’Dea his November opponent. He stuck with it through Wednesday, when Democratic Socialists of America activists confronted him over the U.S. Supreme Court’s abolition of abortion rights: Vote for me, again, as Democrats navigate the “aftermath” of Trump’s presidency.

Bennet, first appointed to the seat in 2009 and seeking his third full term in the Senate, isn’t running solely on a post-Trump message. In Colorado Springs on Wednesday, for example, he highlighted his efforts to renew the pandemic-era expanded child tax credit and an eagerness to promote education as a means to economic mobility.

“For one brief, shining moment, we were able to cut childhood poverty in America and Colorado almost in half. We cut hunger in the United States almost by a quarter,” Bennet said in a stump speech before a lunchtime crowd. “It is a disgrace that we haven’t extended it, and I want to go back to make sure that it’s permanent.”

But, by choice and circumstance, the former president — and, more specifically, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court that Trump appointed — keeps coming up.

“You guys fell asleep at the wheel”: activists demand Democrats do more

When Bennet arrived at the Denver Botanic Gardens on June 24 for a photo op of him voting, he toted a marked-up copy of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade along with his ballot. Bennet was irate, calling it the first time in U.S. history that a right was stripped from people. He repeated the message a week later.

“Unimaginable,” he said in Colorado Springs on Wednesday. “To have stripped us of the first constitutional right we have ever lost in America. You want to know what losing a democracy feels like? This is what it starts to feel like.”

As Bennet wrapped up that midday stump speech at the event, shouts from a bullhorn grabbed the crowd’s attention. A handful of members of the local Democratic Socialists of America demanded answers on what he was doing about the decision and implored him and Democrats to fight the conservative supreme court.

“You’re saying Democrats aren’t doing enough now? How is it possible we ever allowed Donald Trump to become president of the United States?” Bennet told the activists during a six-and-a-half-minute back and forth with them to the side of the event.

“Because you guys fell asleep at the wheel!” Jacki Othon, co-chair of the Colorado Springs DSA, responded.

Bennet said he’s also angry with his fellow Democrats for not doing more to beat Trump at the ballot box in 2016. But packing the courts, he argued, would “make (Republican Senate leader) Mitch McConnell the defender of America’s institutions,” and box out Democrats from keeping the majority.

“We will guarantee that the majority in the Senate is an anti-choice majority who will banish abortion in this country,” Bennet said. “That is my view of what you’re proposing.”

Instead, he proposed reforming the filibuster so it’s not a de facto 60-vote requirement on anything even slightly partisan. Bennet instead wants to make debate active, with each side arguing about the legislation, and proposing amendments before having a majority vote decide the matter. He’s also open to term limits for justices.

Othon said after the interaction she wasn’t reassured.

“This happened on his watch,” she said. “We had a leak (of the abortion opinion) and Democrats didn’t do anything to get ahead of it.”

Democrats have been bleeding support over lack of action, Othon said. She worries voter apathy will turn Colorado purple if there isn’t any federal action being taken on issues like abortion rights. It was a theme echoed by fellow DSA member Maryah Lauer.

“They take no real action and they just like to push the blame to Manchin or Sinema, or just continue to evade responsibility from doing their constitutional duties,” Lauer said, referring to two Democrats often held up as blocking the slim majority’s agenda. “I think that’s a great way for them to lose.”

“This is going to be another tough year”: GOP ties Bennet to tough economic times

While people on the left are clamoring for Bennet to take firmer action against the Supreme Court, people on the right — namely Republican nominee O’Dea and his supporters — are eager to do everything they can to tie Bennet to the current White House resident.

Ahead of the primary election, Democrats spent millions boosting O’Dea’s election-denying opponent, state Rep. Ron Hanks. O’Dea’s supporters and outside observers argued it was a move right out of past political playbooks: Meddle in the opposition’s primary with the hopes they nominate someone more beatable in the general election.

O’Dea nonetheless won his primary handily, by about 10 percentage points. He peppered his victory night speech with jabs at Democrats for spending so much in a Republican race. He also eagerly tied Bennet to President Joe Biden and broader economic turmoil.

“Let there be no doubt the Colorado senate race is going to be a referendum on Joe Biden’s policy and Michael Bennet’s rubberstamp,” O’Dea said during his victory speech. “America is struggling and moving in the wrong direction and Joe Biden is to blame. Michael Bennet has been Joe Biden’s wingman at every turn.”

The Republican National Committee, sensing political headwinds for the Democratic Party and knowing that it wasn’t long ago Colorado had a Republican in the Senate, echoed O’Dea in framing the race.

“Michael Bennet is vulnerable because he has been a rubber stamp for Joe Biden’s failing agenda that has hurt Colorado families,” RNC spokesperson Alex Kuehler said in a statement. “From soaring inflation to record-high gas prices and rising crime, Coloradans are fed up with Democrat policies that have negatively impacted their quality of life and will vote for Joe O’Dea in November to send Bennet packing.”

Bennet also remembers when Colorado wasn’t as blue as it is now, both at the state and federal level. He said he still considers it a purple state — even as he takes his own shots at O’Dea and accuses him of being out of Colorado’s mainstream. He cited the Republican’s stated support for the Supreme Court justice who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and opposition to Colorado’s law enshrining abortion rights, and opposition to more gun laws.

Bennet won his first Senate race by less than 2 percentage points in 2010, and by nearly 6 percentage points in 2016 — when Republicans nominated the stauncher conservative over the relatively more moderate businessman, a reversal of this cycle. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists Colorado’s senate race as likely Democrat this year.

“We were gonna have a tough race whoever got nominated, because it’s just it’s a tough cycle,” Bennet said in an interview. “I know what this looks like. 2010 was a tough year, 2014 — when I was chairing the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee — was a tough year. 2016 was a tough year. This is going to be another tough year.”

Denver Post reporter Jon Murray contributed to this report.

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