Groups linked to Democrats appear to be trying to use pricey television ads and mailers to boost the profiles of three conservative – and controversial – candidates in Colorado running in important Republican primaries this year.
The effort seems to be aimed at giving Democrats a leg up in the general election. It’s not the first time Democrats have deployed such tactics in Colorado, and in the past they’ve been successful.
The ad spending in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests alone is at least $1.5 million, according to contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission through Tuesday that were analyzed by The Colorado Sun. The ads, which are running statewide, began airing Tuesday and some are scheduled to last through June 28, primary election day. It’s likely the spending is even higher, as many TV stations don’t file contracts immediately.
The ads are positioned to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez, a former mayor of Parker. He has made controversial statements on the campaign trail and in 2020 settled a lawsuit filed by federal prosecutors alleging that after he left the Small Business Administration, where he was the Colorado district director from 2008 to 2014, he violated federal law by attempting to improperly influence the agency.
They also seem geared toward supporting state Rep. Ron Hanks, a Fremont County Republican running for U.S. Senate who attended the rally preceding the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and baselessly asserts the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. Hanks says Republicans should be unapologetically conservative in order to beat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in November.
Meanwhile, mailers sent to voters in Colorado’s new, highly competitive 8th Congressional District appear to support Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, one of four GOP primary candidates. Saine has called herself the most “far-right/conservative/America First” Republican candidate running in the race and has advocated for the impeachment of President Joe Biden.
While it isn’t clear who sent the mailers – they didn’t include a disclosure, possibly in violation of federal election law – the postal permit used on them has been used in the past by the firm Plumb Marketing to distribute mailings by Democratic interests.
The ads arrive during an election cycle that has seen relatively little TV advertising compared with past years. That’s in part because Republican candidates in competitive primaries are raising so little money, and Democratic incumbents are saving their cash for the general election.
Democratic Colorado, a recently formed federal super PAC, is airing at least $780,000 worth of TV ads statewide in the next week that purport to oppose Hanks in the U.S. Senate contest. But they also highlight his conservative positions on issues including abortion and the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Hanks faces construction company owner Joe O’Dea in the June 28 GOP primary. O’Dea, a wealthy self-funding candidate, has more moderate views on issues including abortion, and he also has far more money to spend than Hanks, who has yet to air TV or radio ads.
O’Dea plans to spend more than $300,000 in the coming weeks on TV ads in a race where polling shows voters don’t really know either candidate. Additionally, American Policy Fund, a super PAC funded in part by contractors with ties to O’Dea, has reported spending $600,000 on digital, radio and TV ads supporting O’Dea.
Hanks praised the publicity about his conservative views.
“Unaffiliated voters and Democrats fully recognize this economy is in shambles, and (President) Joe Biden caused it,” Hanks told The Sun. “I welcome their support, and I am pleased they recognize my straightforward policies and professional experience make me the only choice on the Republican side.”
O’Dea’s campaign slammed the attempt to “hijack the Republican primary.”
And the NRSC, which supports GOP Senate candidates, issued a news release calling the ads a sign of Democratic “panic.”
“In supposedly ‘blue’ Colorado, Democrats are reportedly dumping 7-figures into the REPUBLICAN Senate primary to try and stir up drama,” the release said. “Just goes to show you how vulnerable Michael Bennet is in a state that Joe Biden won by more than 13 points.”
Democrats have been signaling for months that they would prefer Bennet face Hanks than O’Dea, including by calling Hanks the GOP primary front-runner despite there has been very little public polling in the race. Nevertheless, a spokeswoman for Democratic Colorado maintained that the ads are aimed at opposing Hanks, even though it’s not clear he will win the primary.
“We are an organization committed to ensuring that Colorado does not elect a Republican to the U.S. Senate and giving voters the facts about who’s running to represent them,” the spokeswoman, Democratic operative Alvina Vasquez, wrote in an email. “Ron Hanks is simply too conservative for Colorado and voters deserve to know the truth about him: At every opportunity, Hanks has consistently put conservative values ahead of our interests – from denying the results of the 2020 election to fighting to ban all abortions and increase access to guns.”
In the governor’s race, the Colorado Information Network, a state-level super PAC, is spending at least $688,000 on TV ads about Lopez that similarly highlight his conservative bona fides on abortion, same-sex marriage and former President Donald Trump though they end by criticizing the candidate for being too far right. Those ads are scheduled through the end of the month.
Colorado Information Network spent more than $300,000 supporting Democratic candidates in the 2018 general election.
Lopez faces University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl in the GOP primary. Ganahl is far and away the fundraising leader in the race, which will decide who faces Democratic Gov. Jared Polis in November.
Ganahl spokeswoman Lexi Swearingen criticized the ads.
“Democrats outside Colorado are dumping millions of dollars into this race in an attempt to pick the candidate, a former Democrat himself, that they feel they can easily beat in November,” Swearingen said in a statement to The Sun. “Democrats know that Heidi Ganahl is a formidable opponent with a message that resonates with not only Republicans but also the 45% of unaffiliated voters in our state.”
But Lopez sees the ad differently. He denied that the ad is meant to boost his campaign calling it an attack that’s proof he’s a “real threat to Polis.”
Ganahl’s campaign booked about $32,000 in cable TV ads in recent days, based on contracts filed with the FCC. But Lopez has yet to go on the air and had only about $17,000 in his campaign bank account as of May 25.
In the 8th Congressional District, an unidentified group sent three mailers contrasting the views of Saine with those of state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, the Democratic nominee in the district.
The mailers don’t suggest people should vote for or against either candidate – and they don’t include a disclosure of who sent them. FEC rules require reporting of electioneering spending within 30 days of a primary election, and two of the mailers fall within that window.
“The question Republican voters need to ask themselves before they vote is why is there a secret Democratic group sending out illegal mailers to try and help Lori Saine win the nomination,” said Alan Philp, a spokesman for state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, one of the other 8th District Republican candidates.
Saine argued that the mailers actually support Caraveo.
“By not listing Yadira Caraveo’s support for abortion up to the day (of) birth, that she opposes voter photo ID and wants to take away ALL your guns, these ads are boosting Caraveo, covering up her outrageous extremism and support for the failed Biden agenda,” Saine told The Sun.
The Sun asked Plumb Marketing about who is responsible for the mailers, but didn’t hear back.
Kelly Maher, a Republican political consultant and 8th District resident, said she may file a complaint with the FEC about the mailers.
“You don’t know where the source of this information is coming from,” she said. “The question is whether the average Republican primary voter will be able to discern that.”
Three of the four candidates in the 8th District GOP primary are spending on TV ads, but none have booked more than $100,000.
The big spending will come in the fall, when Democratic and Republican groups are poised to spend big trying to win the tossup seat that may determine which party controls Congress.
The House Majority PAC, which supports Democrats, has booked more than $4.4 million in fall ads focused at least in part on the 8th District, while the Congressional Leadership Fund, which supports Republicans, has booked $4.1 million worth of TV time aimed at least in part at winning the same district.
Democratic involvement in Republican primaries in Colorado isn’t new.
In 2010, for instance, a group called Colorado Freedom Fund spent more than $500,000 airing ads attacking former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis in his GOP gubernatorial primary contest against political newcomer Dan Maes. The ads aired in the days before the primary, after the last campaign finance filing deadline for outside spenders, so it wasn’t until after the contest, which Maes won by 5,150 votes, that Coloradans learned the Democratic Governors Association and unions were behind the Colorado Freedom Fund.
In 2014, Protect Colorado Values aired ads attacking former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez and praising former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo in the Republican gubernatorial primary. That group spent $567,000 on TV, radio and digital ads, but Beauprez still won the nomination.
Protect Colorado Values’ money also came from the Democratic Governors Association and other groups traditionally aligned with Democrats.
Both Beauprez and Maes went on to lose to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat.