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The Democratic candidates competing in the June party primary for U.S. Senate are Andrew Romanoff, left, and John Hickenlooper, right. (Colorado Sun photo illustration)

Allies of an under-pressure John Hickenlooper are rushing to the former governor’s aid in Colorado’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, launching a major television ad buy that includes a spot slamming Andrew Romanoff’s immigration record. 

Let’s Turn Colorado Blue, a mysterious federal political action committee formed this week, has reserved about $750,000 in air time in the Denver and Colorado Springs TV markets through Election Day on June 30, according to Federal Communications Commission records analyzed by The Colorado Sun.

A blistering ad run by the group starting Friday night attacks Romanoff, the former Colorado House speaker, for passing bills in the state legislature in 2006 regarded as being anti-immigrant. “Latino leaders said if it’s expedient for him, he’s willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable,” the narrator says. “Andrew Romanoff: Wrong then and wrong for us now.”

Romanoff has apologized for the measures and written at-length about the policy

It’s unclear who is behind Let’s Turn Colorado Blue, though the group is registered to a Denverite named Mannie Rodriguez, who has long been involved in the state’s Democratic politics, and separately lists its address as a house in Lafayette. 

Rodriguez did not return calls seeking comment. The Colorado Sun on Friday evening visited the Lafayette home, which had yard signs for Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse piled on the porch, but no one answered. 

“We could not sit idly by as Andrew Romanoff continued to attack John Hickenlooper and Cory Gardner and national Republican groups jumped into the middle of this primary — running millions of dollars in negative ads aimed at taking down John Hickenlooper and boosting his opponent.” Rodriguez said in a written statement. “Let’s Turn Colorado Blue is made up of people who know that our best shot at defeating Cory Gardner is with former Governor John Hickenlooper, a proven and effective leader who will look out for all of us.”

Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for Let’s Turn Colorado Blue and a vocal Hickenlooper supporter, declined to say where the group’s funding is from.

“It’s fairly obvious that they’ve been planning these attacks for weeks,” Romanoff said in an interview Friday night. “He should either stand by these attacks that are paid by his supporters or he should denounce it.”

Romanoff pointed to statements Hickenlooper made as Denver mayor touting the city’s cooperation with federal immigration agents. “Hickenlooper is now hiding behind a dark-money group to attack me in a way that’s inaccurate and defamatory,” Romanoff said. “That’s beneath John Hickenlooper.”

Since Let’s Turn Colorado Blue is a political action committee, it cannot coordinate with Hickenlooper’s campaign, which was unaware of the Romanoff ad when reached by The Colorado Sun on Friday night. 

“We’re the only campaign running positive ads,” said Melissa Miller, a spokeswoman for  Hickenlooper, “and it’s a shame Cory Gardner, Andrew Romanoff, Mitch McConnell, and dark money groups injected a negative tone into this race.”

Meanwhile, Hickenlooper’s campaign and national Democrats have also launched a massive television ad buy leading up to the election, though instead of attacking Romanoff the spending is touting Hickenlooper’s record and going after Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.

Hickenlooper’s campaign is spending roughly $1.1 million on TV air time over the final two weeks of the contest, according to FCC records. From June 1 through Tuesday, he had spent only about $400,000 on television ads for the primary. 

The Senate Majority PAC, which works to elect Democrats to the Senate, is spending even more. 

The new spending — between Let’s Turn Colorado Blue, Senate Majority PAC and Hickenlooper’s campaign — is the equivalent of enough air time to saturate the market.

It also marks a change in focus for the former two-term governor, who until recently had been keeping his eye almost exclusively on the November general election. He has barely engaged with Romanoff outside of debates and forums. 

But facing fallout from being found by the state’s ethics commission to have violated Colorado’s constitutional gift ban when he was governor and after a number of stumbles related to race, Hickenlooper’s strategy appears to be shifting. 

“Cory Gardner, Mitch McConnell and now Andrew Romanoff are spending nearly $2 million attacking John. Our campaign is making sure voters have the facts about John’s record,” said Miller, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman. 

Gardner and outside Republican groups are hammering Hickenlooper on TV for his ethics troubles and remarks on race, dropping about $1 million in the last two weeks of the Democratic primary, according to FCC records. 

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before a campaign rally for President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the World Arena in Colorado Springs Thursday, February 20, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That spending likely benefits Romanoff, and the new spending from Hickenlooper and his allies suggests the attacks have moved the needle to the point that there’s a need to urgently respond. 

“Just judging from their ramping up of the ads, they’re probably seeing this as — it might be a real contest,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “It’s close enough that Hickenlooper’s not taking any chances here.”

Hickenlooper’s increased spending includes a new ad in which he sounds more like Romanoff, who has been running on a progressive-insurgent platform. Romanoff has claimed that Hickenlooper wouldn’t go far enough in pushing for progressive policies if elected at a time when significant action is needed on climate change and health care. 

The ad, which marks a shift from Hickenlooper’s “evolution, not revolution” brand of compromise politics, pushes back on that narrative.

“This is a moment for big change,” the narrator in the Hickenlooper ad says, pointing out the former governor’s work on environmental, health care and police accountability issues. “He’ll be a senator who delivers.” 

YouTube video

Hickenlooper is also receiving more support from national Democrats, namely the Senate Majority PAC. The group launched a new ad touting the former governor’s record on health care. The PAC is spending at least $1.6 million in the last two weeks before the primary, the Sun’s analysis shows. 

“As governor, John Hickenlooper expanded Medicaid to 400,000 Coloradans, and he’ll always fight to protect coverage for people with preexisting conditions,” the narrator says. “John Hickenlooper will beat Cory Gardner.”

The ads come against a backdrop of an internal poll released by Romanoff’s campaign Thursday showing him closing the gap in the primary race. Polling in recent months has shown Hickenlooper winning by as many as 50 percentage points, but the internal survey showed Romanoff down by just 12. 

MORE: Andrew Romanoff is closing the gap after John Hickenlooper’s stumbles, poll indicates

While 12 percentage points is still a wide margin, Hickenlooper’s new spending is likely an effort to stop any momentum Romanoff may be amassing. The ads also serve his general election campaign effort if he wins the primary. 

Romanoff released a blistering ad of his own on Friday that will air on TV and digital platforms statewide through the election. It turns clips from Hickenlooper’s famous “shower” ad from the 2010 Colorado gubernatorial race against him.

YouTube video

In his original ad, Hickenlooper showered in a suit because he didn’t like negative ads. The Romanoff ad voiceover suggests Hickenlooper is showering to wash away all manner of sins — taking money from the oil and gas industry as governor, the ethics violations and his “slave ship” comment. 

“You got to ask yourself,” the narrator says, “why does John Hickenlooper take so many showers?”

The end of the spot chips away at the electability argument that is central to Hickenlooper’s campaign: “We can’t take this kind of risk if we are going to beat Cory Gardner.” 

Romanoff is spending about $600,000 on TV ad spots, according to a Sun analysis, with about half of that coming in the final two weeks of the primary campaign.

Ironically, the shower ad prompted several top Colorado Democrats — including Gov. Jared Polis — to call on Romanoff to run a clean campaign. The calls came before the attack ad on Romanoff began running on Friday evening. 

“Winning the U.S. Senate seat in Colorado is essential to achieving a Democratic majority and moving our nation forward. I’m disappointed that Andrew Romanoff has chosen to throw mud and attack John Hickenlooper instead of focusing on his own vision and record,” Polis said in a statement Friday. “There is much more that unites Democrats than divides us, and both John and Andrew have done a lot for Colorado. I hope that Andrew reconsiders this counterproductive attack ad, so that we can put Democrats in the best position to win in November.”

Polis has not made an endorsement in the race, but his comments blasting Romanoff’s tactics mark the most significant step he has taken to wade into the Democratic primary. In 2018, when Hickenlooper was governor, he came to Polis’ defense after a group supporting Polis’ Democratic gubernatorial primary opponent Cary Kennedy launched an attack ad. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters at the governor’s mansion in downtown Denver on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, another Hickenlooper ally, said Friday that “we would do well to stick to drawing contrasts rather than lobbing ad hominem attacks.” Former Colorado House Majority Leader Alice Madden, who briefly ran in the Senate Democratic primary, said Romanoff’s ad makes him look desperate. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a friend of Hickenlooper’s and a foe of Romanoff, called Romanoff’s ad a “gift to Republicans.”

“Right now, Cory Gardner, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Andrew Romanoff are all running attack ads against John,” Bennet said in a statement. “It’s clear who Republicans fear in November — and rightly so.”

Romanoff’s campaign brushed off the criticism. 

“It’s telling to me that the ad we put up today, which produced all this hand-wringing, has not been challenged in any of its points,” Romanoff said. “I haven’t heard anybody in the press or the Hickenlooper camp or any of the surrogates who are riding to his rescue, I haven’t heard them challenge any of the facts in the ad that we aired. At all. … I assume that the same folks who were so outraged by our factual ad today will be even more outraged and aghast at this false ad (about me).” 

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff speaks at Indivisible Front Range’s candidate forum at Barnum Park in Denver on June 9, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Romanoff has lobbed more attacks at Hickenlooper, but Hickenlooper — who has long vowed to only run clean campaigns — has not entirely shied away from firing back. 

Hickenlooper hasn’t attacked Romanoff in campaign ads, but he has jabbed at his opponent in recent debates, calling out Romanoff’s history of losing two prior congressional races and resurfacing his support as a state lawmaker for a resolution backing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Hickenlooper’s campaign declined to comment on Romanoff’s shower ad. However, his campaign pointed out that several public figures who previously endorsed Romanoff’s campaign are now backing Hickenlooper. 

Ballots for the June 30 primary were sent to voters starting on June 8. 

Staff writer John Frank and editor Dana Coffield contributed to this report. 

Updated at 7:57 a.m. on Monday, June 22, 2020: This story has been updated to provide details on Mannie Rodriguez.

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...

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....