Democrats spend big to bolster struggling Hickenlooper

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Allies of former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) are dropping millions of dollars into a late television advertising blitz ahead of what once looked like an easy primary contest, as local party leaders fret about his chances in an election that could prove crucial in determining control of the Senate.

The outside groups are spending big to counter a three-pronged attack by Hickenlooper’s leading rivals over ethics charges for which Hickenlooper paid a fine. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC),  Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D), who faces Hickenlooper in next week’s primary, are all airing ads critical of the two-term former governor.

Advertising data reviewed by The Hill shows the Republicans have spent a combined $2 million against Hickenlooper in the three weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary. Romanoff’s campaign has added another $525,000 in the past two weeks.

“He lied. He broke the law. And it gets worse,” the NRSC’s ad says, after replaying local news coverage of Hickenlooper’s ethics charges.

“Cory Gardner, Mitch McConnell and now Andrew Romanoff are spending nearly $2 million attacking John,” Melissa Miller, Hickenlooper’s communications director, said in an email. “Our campaign is making sure voters have the facts about John’s record to expand health care to half a million Coloradans, protect a woman’s right to choose, pass gun safety reforms, and implement gold standard methane regulations to combat climate change.”

Gardner’s campaign declined to comment. Romanoff’s campaign also did not respond to a request for comment.

Hickenlooper’s allies are conscious of the national wave of progressive energy building in primaries across the country, in places as diverse as Yonkers, N.Y., western Massachusetts and a U.S. Senate primary in Kentucky. 

“Nationally, people are watching the progressive movement really rise,” said Doug Friednash, who served as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff in the governor’s office. “Romanoff’s a threat, for sure. But I think it’s still Gov. Hickenlooper’s race to lose.”

Romanoff, who once served as co-chairman of Colorado’s chapter of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has refashioned himself as the progressive outsider taking on the more moderate and establishment Hickenlooper.

“Progressives in Colorado have kind of sucked it up for a number of years,” said Seth Masket, who directs the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “But they’ve got a pretty skilled champion in Romanoff. A number of them may be saying, there may be enough of us that we could actually win a contested primary. There’s a little bit of energy and a sense that they don’t just have to accept being the smaller faction anymore.”

Hickenlooper has spent the weeks before the primary touting endorsements from top progressive leaders. On Tuesday, he released a new ad featuring Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “They know he’ll fight with them to combat climate change and get health care for all. For racial justice and to revive the middle class,” the narrator says in the new spot.

Democrats are spending heavily to make sure Hickenlooper doesn’t lose. The Senate Majority PAC, the leading Senate Democratic super PAC, will spend $2.2 million defending Hickenlooper in the two weeks before Colorado voters cast their ballots. 

In a sign of just how serious a threat Romanoff has become, another outside group, Let’s Turn Colorado Blue, is spending almost $1 million on a negative advertisement against the former Speaker over his record on immigration.

“That’s why the cavalry is coming to town, to stop the bleeding now,” said Kyle Saunders, a political scientist at Colorado State University. 

Colorado is critical to the Democratic path back to a Senate majority. It has long been seen as one of Democrats’ best pickup opportunities, along with Arizona, Maine and North Carolina. That, senior Democrats said, is why the early spending on advertising is worth the risk.

“This is a must-win race. You’re not going to take any chances,” one party insider told The Hill.

Hickenlooper entered the race in August as the national Democratic Party’s preferred candidate — in part, Saunders said, because the veteran of two statewide campaigns had already survived the gauntlet of scrutiny. 

Local Democrats long saw Hickenlooper as a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. But that faith has been rattled in recent weeks after the ethics charges, which Hickenlooper has struggled to explain away in debates, and after he recently apologized for racially insensitive remarks.

“The debates have been just embarrassing for Hickenlooper. He hasn’t been prepared,” said Electra Johnson, who heads the El Paso County Democratic Party. “If anybody’s watched the debates, they will have questions about his performance coming up. The Republicans are not going to be playing nice, and they’re going to take those [gaffes] and blow them up, and it gives us a really real chance of losing that seat again.”

Hickenlooper left office with high approval ratings, though he could not translate those ratings into a strong presidential campaign. Most voters know Hickenlooper’s name, an important factor in a state in which unaffiliated voters can cast ballots in the Democratic primary. 

“Yes, these are not ideal situations,” said Dana Torpey-Newman, who heads the Douglas County Democratic Party. “I think that the reality is, Democrats are in a mindset of anything is better than what we currently have.”

But there are signs Romanoff has made up ground. A recent poll conducted for his campaign showed him trailing by 12 percentage points — a substantial deficit, but nowhere near the 50-point gap he faced just after Hickenlooper entered the race.

“The less people are aware of any issues and just know Hickenlooper’s name, the more likely he’ll be the candidate,” Johnson said. “The more aware they are of the issues going on with his candidacy and his performance, the less likely it is.”

Tags Cory Booker Cory Gardner Elizabeth Warren John Hickenlooper Mitch McConnell

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