Recent dueling polls in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race paint pictures of two different contests heading into the traditional start of general election politicking.

The two polls, both from highly rated firms albeit with different political leans, each show incumbent Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet in the lead, but shy of the 50% mark. It’s their findings about Republican challenger Joe O’Dea where they really diverge.

Public Policy Polling, which holds an A- rating from data journalism site FiveThirtyEight and is typically affiliated with Democrats, found 46% of respondents would vote Bennet over O’Dea’s 35% — but 12% are undecided. Further, it found 44% of respondents were undecided on their opinion of the Republican construction company executive.

That poll sampled 782 Colorado voters and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points. But, notably, it doesn’t filter by likely voters and 11% of respondents said they either didn’t vote or voted third-party in the 2020 presidential election. The 2020 general election set a record for voter turnout, with nearly 87% of active voters casting ballots. Only about 2.5% of votes for president were for third-party candidates.

Meanwhile, a more opaquely presented poll shows a dead heat, according to the Washington Examiner. According to the Examiner, that poll showed Bennet with 48% support to O’Dea’s 47%, with 5% undecided. However, the Colorado GOP declined to make that poll available to the Examiner or other media outlets, making it hard to suss out the details of the poll and how its findings were characterized.

Tarrance Group, which conducted the poll on behalf of the Republican Attorney General’s Association, is also highly rated by FiveThirtyEight, with a B+ ranking. That poll surveyed 600 likely registered voters and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.1 percentage points, according to the Examiner.

O’Dea said the election “is gonna be a dogfight” — and one he’s ready for. Bennet, for his part, said he runs every race like he’s 20 percentage points down.

Democratic advantage has been downgraded, but Bennet hopes Inflation Reduction Act, other bills, will energize electorate

While those polls show no conclusive edge for Bennet — and as national prognosticators downgrade the race from likely Democrat to lean Democrat — the incumbent frequently rattles off his party’s recent achievements like the wind is at his back.

A bipartisan infrastructure bill that equals the “most significant investment in infrastructure in this country since Eisenhower was president,” as Bennet put it; a bill to help veterans affected by toxic burn pits; a bipartisan gun bill that encourages states to adopt red flag laws like Colorado’s and earmarks billions of dollars for mental health; a bill to encourage domestic microchip manufacturing; and a strictly partisan climate change bill that included $4 billion aimed at curbing the drought that’s drying the Colorado River.

“Think about that record compared to the chaos of the Trump years,” Bennet said, wrapping up his remarks at a fundraiser for a local Democrat recently. “Think about that investment in America compared to an infrastructure week that never got anything done. Do we really want to go back to that?”

It’s a stark turnaround in mood following a dour turn through the state earlier in the summer. Then, Bennet cast blame on the former president for the loss of national abortion protections and acknowledged how weak it felt to argue spiking inflation was an international problem and not something voters should punish in-power Democrats for.

But since then, gas prices have crawled back down to nearly their lowest point since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and abortion has become a galvanizing issue for people who want to protect access to the procedure.

“Prices are getting a little bit better. It’s still very challenging for people, but they’ve started to move in a better direction,” Bennet said recently. “That helps. And people are very fired up about Roe vs. Wade and the reversal by the Supreme Court. That’s bringing a lot of people out because they feel like they’ve got to try to save this democracy.”

O’Dea pitches race as “a referendum on the trillions in spending and debt”

As much as Bennet wants to tout the bills as accomplishments, not every Coloradan would agree. O’Dea chief among them.

O’Dea has said he supported the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed last year, but after that, the list narrows. His website touts endorsements from gun rights groups, and he attacked the Inflation Reduction Act, which largely addresses climate change and health care issues, as something that “goes against everything that we believe in here in Colorado and trying to make it more affordable.”

However, O’Dea did say he supports the $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act aimed at the Colorado River drought — though he credits Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and not Bennet, for securing the money.

O’Dea said that the Inflation Reduction Act doesn’t actually directly address inflation and worried about its spending while Americans worry about their own bank accounts. He also echoed a recent Republican talking point about the bill funding the IRS.

“I wouldn’t be boasted about voting for additional spending and more IRS agents if I was him here in this state,” O’Dea said in an interview.

The U.S. Treasury Department generally estimates that every dollar invested in tax collection results in several more dollars recouped in otherwise owed taxes. But for O’Dea, who cites the national debt as a key issue, the extra agents aren’t worth the cost to taxpayers.

“Whatever is going to get collected is gonna get spent, and that’s the problem,” O’Dea said. “We need to quit worrying about collecting more money from working Americans and start talking about not spending the money.”

He recently unveiled his priorities if elected to the Senate: Reducing spending and the deficit, hiring more police, beefing up border security — including the wall — and promoting renewable and traditional energy development among them. O’Dea called the election “a referendum on the trillions in spending and debt by President Joe Biden and Sen. Michael Bennet that’s caused this inflation crisis.”

O’Dea had made gas prices and inflation a keystone of the campaign. He otherwise explicitly said he wants to avoid what he called social issues, chiefly abortion.

While gas prices have dropped from mid-summer highs, O’Dea notes it’s still more than $1 more per gallon than a year-and-a-half ago. Things like rent and heating bills are likewise still high. In short, even if economic forecasts and models show costs slowing, people aren’t feeling it, O’Dea said.

“(Coloradans are) having to make tough decisions,” O’Dea said. “And when I’ve talked to a lot of people across the state, they’re all very insecure with where we’re headed. And I think they’re ready for a change.”

O’Dea spent $600,000 in August on advertising and outreach, according to his campaign, with a similar amount slated to be spent on ads this month. While he doesn’t distance himself from the Republican Party in the ads — he did host nearly the entire slate of GOP contenders at one of his properties in early August — he doesn’t don elephant ears, either. The first ad doesn’t mention the party at all; in the second, his wife only mentions it to note “he’s an American before he’s a Republican.”

His biography — O’Dea is the adopted son of a Denver police officer and he left college a semester early to start a construction company — is a major throughline in those ads, including a recently launched Spanish-language spot. In the latter, he said he will support securing the border while protecting “dreamers,” or immigrants who arrived in the country without documentation as young children and grew up here.

Bennet, in a gaggle with reporters recently, took a shot at O’Dea over the ad. He both highlighted his work on the so-called Gang of 8 immigration reform bill that he worked on in 2013, but ultimately failed to pass the Senate, and tried to rebuke the middle-of-the-road tack from O’Dea.

“(O’Dea’s) got a bunch of slogans,” Bennet said. “Like on that, he’s obviously trying to appeal to Trump people on the one hand and trying to appeal to what he thinks Democrats would want on the other hand, and I think he misses the target completely.”

In a state Biden won by 13 points, how competitive will Senate race be?

Colorado’s Senate election is already drawing national attention — though not as many dollars as some of the more marquee races — as Republicans seek to regain the chamber. National conservative pundits see hope in running a candidate who doesn’t always trod the party line in a recently blue state.

But the lack of money being spent in Colorado by national Republican groups compared to races in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio open questions about GOP strategy here. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, reported millions in spending since Labor Day — but none in Colorado.

An analysis by the Colorado Sun further found that in the lead-up to Labor Day, about $9 million in TV ads had aired or been booked in the race at that point. During 2020’s Senate campaign between Democrat John Hickenlooper and Republican Cory Gardner, nearly $46 million in ads had either been booked or spent by that time. Hickenlooper won the race with 53.5% of the vote to unseat Gardner.

The most recent fundraising numbers won’t be available for another month, but Bennet started the general election campaign with a large fundraising advantage over O’Dea. The challenger expects Bennet will outspend him 6-to-1 in the end, but “he can’t sidestep the issues that he’s caused $20 trillion in debt in the 13 years that he’s he’s been in office. That’s not a badge of honor.”

Hispanic Coloradans may prove a decisive demographic in whether O’Dea or Bennet go to Washington, D.C. after the election. A recent poll commissioned by Unidos and Mi Familia Vota found inflation and the rising cost of living by far the biggest concern among Hispanic Coloradans. More than half of the likely voters surveyed ranked it in their top three biggest issues, with 30% listing jobs and the economy and 23% citing a lack of affordable housing or high rents.

The poll has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 5.7 percentage points. Pollsters were talking to voters in the last 10 days of July, when gas prices were just starting to come down from summer highs. Even though prices have fallen by more than $1 per gallon since, pollster Gary Segura, president and co-founder of BSP Research, said that strain on Colorado budgets is still fresh in the minds of many.

“All voters, regardless of race or ethnicity, update slowly,” Segura said. “Gas prices are falling is different from you knowing gas prices are falling, or you feeling it when you go to the pump.”

The poll found a rising number of Hispanics who rank abortion access as a key issue. It’s a relatively new trend, Segura said. Hispanic voters have traditionally been pro-abortion access, but it’s now a “deal breaker” for many.

Abortion remains an issue Bennet, Democrats and supporters aim to hammer O’Dea on. Advocates held a press call on the matter last week to argue any limits on the procedure would lead to harm for pregnant people. Health care should be a private matter between a patient and their doctor, they said.

O’Dea has stated his support for Roe v. Wade — including its limits on abortion later in pregnancy. He recently said he supports abortion access through the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for things like health and in cases of rape or incest, according to the Colorado Sun. He also said he voted for a Colorado ballot measure in 2020 that would have banned abortion after 22 weeks of gestation. Colorado voters rejected that measure, 59% to 41%.

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