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GOP Senate candidate touts military support with image of Russian jets

Colorado construction CEO Joe O’Dea is vying to challenge Michael Bennet

Fighter jets that appear in an ad by Colorado Senate candidate Joe O’Dea are Russian planes, military experts say.
Fighter jets that appear in an ad by Colorado Senate candidate Joe O’Dea are Russian planes, military experts say. (Screenshot/Joe O’Dea for Senate)

Colorado Republican Senate candidate Joe O’Dea promises to “support the police and military,” in a television ad that featured footage of a half-dozen planes flying in formation against a backdrop of fluffy, white clouds. 

Only, those weren’t American planes. Three experts on military aviation, after viewing the ad, concluded independently that the aircraft used in the ad by a Republican vying to challenge Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet are a mix of Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets — possibly flying in a Russian military parade.

“100 percent Russian,” Jeremiah Gertler, senior analyst at the Teal Group aerospace consultancy, said in an email.

The image, which appears for less than a second in the 30-second ad after a picture of a woman in a police uniform, is identical to one posted on the stock photography website Shutterstock, a common source of images in political ads. 

That could mean it was an inadvertent error, but it still could open O’Dea to attacks as he attempts to win the GOP nomination for what Republicans hope to make one of the most competitive races in the country. 

Along with a series of tweets in which O’Dea praised Ukraine’s president and supportively retweeted Republican senators, including Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and Utah’s Mitt Romney, an O’Dea campaign strategist, Zack Roday, sent a statement that admitted the image was used in error and denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Our special editor for military stock footage is being sent to his room without dinner. We’re correcting the error, Putin’s a thug, and Joe is still going to beat Michael Bennet like a drum,” he said.

The planes’ formation is typical of a Russian military parade, according to a Pentagon adviser who requested anonymity. Indeed, the contributor of the Shutterstock image, Igor Svencom, wrote in a caption that the photo is from “the victory parade,” a possible reference to Russia’s annual “Victory Day” military parade in May.

Richard Aboulafia, managing director of Aerodynamic Advisory, an aerospace consulting firm, said the various models of aircraft shown in the footage are  “almost certainly” members of the Sukhoi Su-30 family of fighter jets.

“Since these are the mainstay of the Russian air force’s Ukraine war operations, this is a particularly regrettable choice of footage,” Aboulafia said in an email. 

O’Dea, a first-time candidate who owns a Denver-based construction company, spent about $250,000 to air the ad across the state for three weeks, starting Sunday, in order to introduce himself to voters, according to a Fox News report

He has positioned himself as the more moderate of the two Republicans on the ballot in the June 28 primary. While his opponent, state Rep. Ron Hanks, has made false claims of election fraud a central part of his campaign, O’Dea has made clear from the outset that he believes President Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that he plans to focus his campaign on the records of Biden and incumbent Bennet. That would put O’Dea at odds with those on the extreme right who have sometimes expressed sympathy or even admiration for Putin. 

But if O’Dea wins the Republican nomination, Democrats will be looking for any way to tie him to the extreme elements of the GOP to undermine Republicans’ assertion that the state, which has been trending to the left in recent elections, is ready to elect a Republican in a statewide race. 

Veronica Yoo, spokesperson for Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, said the ad shows O’Dea was “incompetent.” She said voters deserve better.

“Claiming to support our troops over footage of Russian fighter jets is a slap in the face to Colorado veterans, service members, and military families — not to mention the height of political negligence,” Yoo said.

Biden won the state by 14 points in 2020, but Republican strategists say the president’s low approval ratings and voters’ frustration with high inflation, rising crime rates and cultural flashpoint issues could put the state in play in a Senate race against Bennet, who voted with Biden 98.7 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch. The Senate race is rated Solid Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. 

The dominant images in the ad feature O’Dea wearing a hard hat or smiling with his family. 

“Joe O’Dea. He’s a conservative running for U.S. Senate,” a narrator says. “He’s not a politician. People call him the boss. He’s a construction CEO and a Colorado leader. He built his construction company from the ground up, employing hundreds of Coloradans.”

Other lawmakers have weathered controversies after using stock military images that are easily identifiable to experts but not laypeople. Republican Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi and Florida Rep. Brian Mast have all recently been caught posting birthday greetings for branches of the American military featuring pictures of vessels that belonged to other countries.