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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to reporters on Aug. 22, 2019, in Golden, the day he announced he was running for U.S. Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Saturday formally threw its support in Colorado’s U.S. Senate primary to John Hickenlooper, a move sure to irk the large slate of his intraparty rivals and that likely signals significant financial support for the former governor. 

“John Hickenlooper is far and away the strongest candidate to beat Cory Gardner, and we’re proud to support him in his run for Senate,” Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the deep-pocketed DSCC, said in a written statement. 

The DSCC endorsement comes just days after Hickenlooper announced his candidacy and about a week after he ended his presidential bid. The organization sent a tweet out Friday celebrating his U.S. Senate bid, but not clearly backing his candidacy over others. 

The DSCC is the Democratic party arm tasked with ensuring Democrats win in U.S. Senate races, which gives candidates both direct financial support but also has millions to spend on their behalf. They need four seats to win back the chamber’s majority in 2020, and Colorado is one of the group’s top targets. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP campaign arm in the Senate, has been playing heavily in Colorado’s 2020 race. Through July it had already given Republican Cory Gardner’s camp nearly $45,000. 

President Donald Trump also tweeted out support for Gardner on Thursday night and attacked Hickenlooper, saying the former governor faces “big primary trouble!”

As the 11 other Democrats in Colorado’s Senate primary respond to the new entrant, many have rejected the notion that he’s the only one who can beat Gardner next year. Others have criticized the DSCC for picking a candidate to support so early in the race. 

MORE: Here’s who’s running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 — and who’s thinking about it

“This is a moment of decision,” former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff said on Twitter. “Do we want D.C. to dictate our choice and buy this election before any ballots are even cast — or do we believe voters still matter?”

Romanoff, who has been trying to use Hickenlooper’s candidacy to rally support for his own campaign, criticized national Democrats for recruiting and backing a candidate who is against the Green New Deal and Medicare For All, saying “we can bend to Washington’s will — or break them.” He has gone as far as to say Hickenlooper and Gardner are on the same page policywise. 

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston’s campaign on Saturday responded to the DSCC endorsement by pointing to their candidate’s support from Coloradans as contrast.

“Mike is grateful for his support from all 64 Colorado counties and from Democratic leaders across the state,” said Rachel Petri, his spokeswoman.

MORE: “This won’t be a coronation.” If Hickenlooper wants to be a U.S. senator, he needs to clear many hurdles

The DSCC didn’t immediately respond to a question about criticism that the committee is getting involved in the primary too soon. The last time the organization played a significant role in a Colorado primary was in the 2010 U.S. Senate contest in which they backed Michael Bennet over Romanoff. 

Bennet, now a presidential candidate, went on to win both the primary and general elections that cycle.

Also on Saturday, former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar endorsed Hickenlooper.

Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rallies voters at La Rumba in Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood on Nov. 4, 2018. On Saturday, he endorsed John Hickenlooper’s U.S. Senate campaign. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Salazar, who is also a former U.S. senator now working at a private law firm whose clients include oil and gas interests, said that the former governor represents Democrats’ best chance of defeating Gardner in 2020. He said “there’s no risk there” since people in Colorado know Hickenlooper and he was twice elected governor.

“I would say to everybody that we need to win this race in Colorado,” Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, told The Sun. “That’s very, very important. There are many good people who are running — I know many of them, they are friends of mine — but in this day and age, we can’t afford to lose.”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....