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Tom Sullivan listens as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democratic candidate for president in 2020, unveils his campaign's gun control platform in Aurora on Dec. 5, 2019. He delivered remarks within about 200 yards of the Aurora theater where a gunman killed 12 and injured dozens more in 2012. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The 2020 election arrived six months ago on Colorado’s TV screens and reached $7.2 million in political advertising by the end of the year.

But that’s just a drop in the 2020 advertising bucket. One election watcher predicts Colorado will see $163 million worth of TV and digital ads this year just in the presidential and U.S. Senate contests.

Colorado is projected to see $56 million in TV and digital advertising just in the presidential contest this year, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks campaign ad spending. Colorado’s Senate contest is expected to be one of the top in the nation, with $107 million in TV and digital ad spending, the firm projects.

If the presidential spending totals are reached, it would be more than double the $25 million spent on TV advertising by candidates and outside groups in the 2016 primary and general election campaigns just in the Denver market. And the prediction for the Senate race would dwarf the nearly $40 million spent on TV ads in the Denver market in the 2014 contest in which U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. 

“There’s enough evidence right now that Senate control could be in play in 2020. That really attracts the advertisers,” said Travis Ridout, a Washington State University political scientist and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. “I expect we’ll see a lot more from the Trump campaign than we did in 2016. I expect that small-dollar democratic donors are going to empty their wallets to defeat Trump in 2020.”

Coloradans already are getting attention from presidential candidates as the state prepares to hold its first presidential primary election in 20 years on Super Tuesday, March 3. Then there’s the nationally watched U.S. Senate contest, where Gardner is one of the top Democratic targets in the Nov. 3 election.

But Colorado isn’t alone in the early political ad spending, Ridout said.

“We’re seeing a lot of action in a lot of those states you expect to be competitive,” he  said. “There’s a lot of money pouring into Maine and Kentucky, in addition to Colorado and Arizona and North Carolina.”

From late July through the end of December, more than a dozen groups spent money on TV ads to influence the state’s voters, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of political ad contracts related to national issues and candidates filed with the Federal Communications Commission. Most were aligned with Democratic candidates or causes with the other spenders tied to interest groups.

So far, big spending from Bloomberg and health care group

The biggest spender in the last half of 2019 was Doctor Patient Unity. That group spent nearly $2.3 million on ads urging Congress to defeat plans that may prevent expensive medical bills for out-of-network expenses. Doctor Patient Unity is funded by private equity firms that provide medical staff to emergency rooms, where such bills are most common.

The No. 2 spender was former New York City mayor and billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, who put nearly $2.2 million into airing nearly 2,900 ads in Denver and Colorado Springs beginning around Thanksgiving.

Bloomberg is avoiding early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire for the most part, instead aiming for Super Tuesday momentum. His spending included $112,000 for ads aired during two Denver Broncos games in December. 

And the Democratic presidential candidate is on track to spend more than $752,000 in the first week of 2020, including $52,000 during last Sunday’s NFL playoff games and $20,000 during the Golden Globe awards the same day. Bloomberg’s ads often take aim at President Donald Trump, on health care, gun safety and the economy, emphasizing the former mayor’s success on such issues.

U.S. Senate race spending started early in Colorado

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Values began airing ads criticizing Gardner in mid-October and spent more than $1.8 million through the end of the year. The ads, sometimes aired in coordination with partner groups, ask viewers to call Gardner about his stance on health care and climate change. 

Because it’s a nonprofit, Rocky Mountain Values doesn’t have to disclose its donors. But the group identifies its partners as a lineup of groups that typically support Democratic candidates: Conservation Colorado, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, America Votes, ProgressNow Colorado and others. Some of those groups aired separate ads attacking Gardner.

The ads criticize Gardner for allowing more oil drilling on public lands, taking “hundreds of thousands” of dollars in campaign contributions from insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers, and his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“We plan to keep up with commercial and digital ads until Sen. Gardner starts voting on climate and health care related bills the way Coloradans are asking him to,” said Rocky Mountain Values spokeswoman Vanessa Harmoush.

Rocky Mountain Values is similar to dark-money groups airing ads in other states with competitive U.S. Senate contests. The big difference: no outside groups stepped up to air TV ads in support Gardner as they did for Republican senators in Iowa, Arizona and Maine

But the Senate Leadership Fund spent nearly $54,000 on digital ads supporting Gardner in December, and Americans For Prosperity Action reported about $23,000 on door hangers and digital ads supporting Gardner in November.

Republican consultant Dick Wadhams cautioned that most Coloradans aren’t paying attention to the Senate contest yet and support for Gardner will come down the road. “He’s vulnerable, there’s no doubt,” Wadhams said of Gardner. “There will be massive amounts of money on the outside exposing the ethically-challenged John Hickenlooper for what he is.”

Wadhams is referencing an ethics inquiry into Hickenlooper’s travel as governor. Hickenlooper, who is a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, has denied wrongdoing, and the matter is set for a hearing in March.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...