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Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, left, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. (Photos by Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper are back on your TV screens just a week after Hickenlooper defeated former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in the primary.

And they are going to stay there for many months to come. 

Both candidates began airing general election ads on Tuesday, and a Democratic nonprofit is set to join Republican outside groups Wednesday as the battle over Gardner’s tossup seat commences in earnest. The candidate spending is relatively minor compared with outside groups on both sides stepping in to attack one candidate or another. 

At least $4.7 million worth of ads will air in the Senate contest just this month, based on a Colorado Sun analysis of TV ad contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission through noon Tuesday.

And the ad spending won’t let up until Nov. 3. Coloradans face at least $19 million worth of ads through Election Day, the Sun analysis indicates. That’s on top of nearly $8.5 million worth of ads that ran in May and June. Almost all of that spending is on the U.S. Senate contest.

It’s likely the spending will grow considerably as more outside groups and the candidates join the fray. Gardner’s seat is crucial for Democrats hoping to regain control of the Senate and Republicans trying to stop them. The incumbent is considered among the most vulnerable GOP members of Congress up for reelection this year.

Gardner, who started airing ads for his 2020 reelection effort in mid-May, on Tuesday launched a new ad, showing his family packing up for a camping trip, to extol his sponsorship of the Great American Outdoor Act, which passed the Senate last month. His campaign has scheduled at least $373,000 worth of TV ads through early August.

Hickenlooper began airing ads Tuesday criticizing President Donald Trump for asking federal courts to end the Affordable Care Act. In the spot Hickenlooper vows to do more to expand affordable health care and touts his work expanding health care access as Colorado’s governor. 

Contracts filed thus far indicate the campaign is spending at least $315,000 on ads in the next week.

Hickenlooper was the top candidate spender leading up to last week’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary. Nearly 38% of his TV ad spending happened in the final week before he beat Romanoff by about 20 percentage points and won in 63 of Colorado’s 64 counties.

The majority of the advertising booked thus far actually hasn’t come from the two candidates. Instead, outside groups are spending big to support or attack the pair.

Two Republican nonprofits and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports GOP Senate candidates, account for most of the spending so far this month and next. The NRSC is slated to air nearly $2.8 million in ads in July and August.

Nonprofit Unite for Colorado is slated to air more than $2.2 million worth of ads in July and August attacking Hickenlooper after airing more than $500,000 attacking the Democrat in March. Because the group is a nonprofit, it doesn’t disclose its donors. 

Dustin Zvonek runs Unite for Colorado. He’s the former vice president of strategy and innovation and Colorado director for Americans for Prosperity, and a longtime adviser to Republican politicians and groups. AFP is a nonprofit back by billionaire businessman Charles Koch. Its super PAC, AFP Action, is working to reelect Gardner. AFP isn’t affiliated with the new group, Zvonek told The Sun in March.

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Unite is airing ads criticizing Hickenlooper for violating state ethics laws by accepting free travel. But the ads also advocate support for a constitutional amendment that would expand the ethics laws to cover past violations. 

Meanwhile, national nonprofit One Nation has booked more than $1.3 million worth of ads supporting Gardner in July and August. FCC disclosures suggest the ads will mention U.S. policy on China.

That dark money group is also airing ads backing Republicans in other key Senate contests. It uses the same ad buying agency as Unite for Colorado and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that has scheduled nearly $4 million in ads for September and October.

And today, Majority Forward, a Democratic nonprofit affiliated with Senate Majority PAC, will start airing ads attacking Gardner. The dark money group is spending about $400,000 on two Denver stations that filed contracts Tuesday that run through July 20. The ad tells viewers to ask Gardner to oppose Trump’s lawsuit against Obamacare because it would end coverage for pre-existing conditions. 

Senate Majority PAC spent nearly $1.8 million in June on ads supporting Hickenlooper, and is slated to spend nearly $5 million through Election Day starting in September.

CORRECTION: This story was updated July 8, 2020, at 2:30 p.m. to clarify the relationship between AFP and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s reelection campaign.

This story is a part of #FollowtheMoneyCO, a project of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), edited by The Colorado Sun with support from the Colorado Media Project.

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette