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

John Hickenlooper raised more than $2.1 million for his U.S. Senate campaign in less than six weeks, a record haul in Colorado that affirms his Democratic front-runner status in a top-tier race.

The cash total positions the former two-term governor as the top fundraiser in his party primary but it falls short of Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who will report raising $2.45 million for his reelection bid in the three-month period that ended in June.

The Hickenlooper campaign told The Colorado Sun that 95% of the contributions from his announcement Aug. 22 through the Sept. 30 deadline were $200 or less and spanned 59 of Colorado’s 64 counties. He ended the quarter with $1.7 million in the bank.

“Each and every person who chipped in recognizes that Colorado needs a new independent voice, a senator who reflects our values and will work to bring people together and get things done on issues that matter to Coloradans — like expanding access and controlling costs for health care, and tackling climate change head on,” Hickenlooper said in a campaign statement.

MORE: Cory Gardner now boasts $6.7 million in the bank for his 2020 reelection bid in Colorado

Next week, Hickenlooper’s campaign and other Senate candidates will release their full fundraising reports for the past three months, but it’s not likely that any of his nine Democratic rivals for the party’s nomination will match him. 

Mike Johnston, a former candidate who exited soon after Hickenlooper joined the race, held the previous fundraising title with $1.8 million raised by a non-incumbent in a campaign’s first quarter.

The only other current Democrat candidate to raise more than $1 million is Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker, but it took him five months. And he started June with only $248,000 in the bank for a race that is expected to cost millions and represent the party’s best chance to upset a Republican incumbent and potentially take back the Senate.

Hickenlooper’s entry in late August came a week after he ended his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

His presidential campaign raised $3.2 million in its first four months but ended June with $836,000 in the bank. The campaign’s next report is due Oct. 15. The fundraising total for his Senate bid does not include any donations transferred from his presidential campaign, a spokeswoman said.

MORE: Here’s the list of Democrats running for U.S. Senate in Colorado

Hickenlooper needed a big fundraising haul

His second campaign lumbered at the start, as Hickenlooper spent time explaining why he wanted to serve in the Senate after repeatedly saying as a presidential candidate that he wasn’t “cut out” for the job and didn’t want it.

The campaign began to hire more top advisers in recent weeks, including policy and communications specialists, but skipped a candidate forum Sunday focused on climate change, drawing the ire of his rivals and activists.

His first fundraising total is an important benchmark for the campaign, which the candidate acknowledged before the Sept. 30 deadline. “We need strong numbers to show that this campaign has real momentum,” he told potential donors.

When it comes to raising money, Hickenlooper has a key ally: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The national party’s political arm in the Senate endorsed his bid, opening doors to more donors. His campaign is not accepting corporate political action committee contributions.

Hickenlooper could transfer any unspent donations from his presidential primary campaign to his Senate account. And if he spent a donor’s contribution in his White House bid, Federal Election Commission rules allow him to ask for another donation up to $2,800 per election. This means he could get double the maximum donations from his most loyal contributors.

The FEC rules advise presidential candidates who leave the race to return any donations earmarked for the general election but they allow them to transfer money to another federal committee with permission.

MORE: Hickenlooper makes campaign trail debut touting compromise. His rivals in Senate race say it’s the wrong approach.

Money is a point of attack for Hickenlooper’s rivals

Hickenlooper’s rivals see his deep-pocketed donors as a point of attack. 

At least seven Democratic candidates for Senate signed a voluntary pledge to not accept more than $200 from oil, gas and coal industry executives and their lobbyists and political committees. Romanoff signed the pledge but Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas geologist, did not.

Romanoff is blasting Hickenlooper for his big-dollar financial connections. Just days left before the fundraising deadline, Romanoff told allies he needed $110,000 to sustain his campaign because he’s fighting Republicans and a Democratic money machine in Washington that backs Hickenlooper. He has not yet announced his totals for the third quarter.

“This deadline gives us a huge opportunity to show the national media and the Democratic establishment that we have what it takes not only to compete but to win,” Romanoff’s campaign told donors.

On the Republican side, Gardner’s latest fundraising haul tops his previous two quarters. His campaign reported $6.7 million in the bank at the end of September.

Even with more big fundraising sums, Hickenlooper will struggle to catch Gardner in the near future. He first needs to spend money to win a Democratic primary. So far, Gardner is unopposed on the Republican side.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.