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

A dark-money nonprofit affiliated with Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate is the major funder of a pop-up super PAC that spent nearly $1.5 million to boost former Gov. John Hickenlooper days before Colorado’s U.S. Senate primary, according to new federal reports.

A spokesman for Let’s Turn Colorado Blue, the super PAC, said it received $1.5 million from Majority Forward, a nonprofit affiliated with the Senate Majority PAC, that aims to elect Democratic senators.

The Colorado committee was created just two weeks before the June 30 primary and didn’t disclose its donors until now. The new details confirm that national Democrats spent big money on Hickenlooper’s behalf to help him defeat rival Andrew Romanoff. The money came just as the former governor’s campaign suffered repeated setbacks involving ethics violations and gaffes on the topic of race.

Let’s Turn Colorado Blue spent virtually the same amount it received from Majority Forward on TV and digital ads that attacked Romanoff, the former state House speaker. Hickenlooper won by 18 percentage points, 59% to 41%, according to unofficial results, and will face Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in November.

Let’s Turn Colorado Blue and nonprofits that don’t report their donors, such as Majority Forward, are prohibited from coordinating with candidates or political parties. But super PACs and nonprofits may coordinate with each other. Majority Forward, which does not disclose its donors, is affiliated with the super PAC Senate Majority PAC, which is led by the former director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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In addition to nearly $1.5 million spent on advertising and production, Majority Forward paid OnSight Public Affairs $10,000 for communications consulting. OnSight is run by Curtis Hubbard, a longtime Hickenlooper supporter who served as spokesman for Let’s Turn Colorado Blue. 

Hickenlooper’s campaign said when the PAC began airing ads last month blasting Romanoff that it wasn’t aware of Let’s Turn Colorado Blue or its spending. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee encouraged Hickenlooper to run for the U.S. Senate after he abandoned his presidential campaign in 2019. The committee donated the maximum $49,600 and spent more than $354,000 to assist the former governor’s primary campaign, picking favorites in a crowded primary that scuttled the campaigns of numerous minority and women candidates.

“Democrats clearly decided to support Hickenlooper over Romanoff and funneled money towards that effort,” Jennifer Nicoll Victor, a George Mason University political scientist, said in an email. “In a way, it’s fairly typical party politics playing out in the current campaign finance legal landscape. Parties are supposed to help coordinate to win elections. And here, they did.”

The ads aired by Let’s Turn Colorado Blue attacked Romanoff on immigration legislation he supported more than a decade ago, when he was speaker of the Colorado House. It came as Romanoff and the National Republican Senatorial Committee attacked Hickenlooper for two ethics violations involving corporate-funded travel he accepted as governor. The NRSC spent $1.4 million in June attacking Hickenlooper.

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

Let’s Turn Colorado Blue originally reported that its primary funder was Forward Majority Action, a super PAC created in 2017 to elect Democrats to state legislatures. Hickenlooper is one of 10 honorary co-chairs of that Majority Forward Action. But Forward Majority’s founder David Cohen told The Colorado Sun late Wednesday that the filing was a mistake. “That is not us,” he said, noting the group is not involved in federal races.

Hubbard told The Sun that the report was an error and would be amended to indicate that Majority Forward was the funder.

Senate Majority PAC has thus far spent $2.7 million to support Hickenlooper, and $690,000 to oppose Gardner. Its dark-money counterpart Majority Forward is currently airing TV ads attacking Gardner.

Colorado’s Democratic Senate contest isn’t the first to see such last-minute outside spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors until after the election. Both Republicans and Democrats use such loopholes.

Romanoff supporters employed a similar technique using an existing super PAC, Fight for America’s Future, which spent $68,000 on radio advertising opposing Hickenlooper. The largest donation to that group was $50,000 from Charles L. Dunlop of Hawaii. He’s the founder of Ambry Genetics, a California company that sold for $1 billion in 2017. Romanoff’s mother, Gayle Caplan, put $5,000 into the group, and his uncle, William Caplan, gave $9,000. 

Another $5,000 each came from Denver philanthropist Noël Congdon and Democratic state Rep. Edie Hooton, of Boulder. Hooton and Congdon were among eight Colorado donors who put $14,600 total into the super PAC. The group’s $88,600 in contributions all came between June 19 and June 25. 

Hickenlooper touts big haul as Gardner maintains cash edge

Looking toward November, Hickenlooper reported raising close to $1.6 million from June 11 through June 30, to bring his quarterly total to $5.2 million, according to the latest FEC filings. The campaign touted that as a record quarter for a Colorado U.S. Senate candidate. 

Hickenlooper raised $14.2 million since launching his campaign in August. That compares with the $17.5 million for Gardner since he took office in January 2015.

But the former governor’s Democratic primary campaign proved expensive, with $9.6 million total spent, including $2.9 million in the final 20 days of the primary. The campaign had $4.6 million in cash to start the general election campaign, the filings showed.

In a statement provided by his campaign, Hickenlooper noted he’ll need to continue his fundraising to succeed in the general election. “This campaign is only made possible by the strong support of our grassroots army,” Hickenlooper said. “We will need every bit of grassroots help as the Republican cavalry comes in to try to save Sen. Cory Gardner with millions of dark money and corporate PAC dollars.”

Gardner continues to have more money in the bank than Hickenlooper at $10.6 million. But the Republican incumbent’s $3.6 million in donations since April and $1.5 million in the final 20 days of June put the campaign behind the former governor’s fundraising for the fourth reporting period in a row, a Sun analysis shows.

U.S. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado speaking at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s 2018 Update from Capitol Hill at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

“The Gardner campaign enters the general election with a massive advantage over Hickenlooper’s campaign, with our campaign reporting more than double Hickenlooper’s cash on hand,” campaign manager Casey Contres said in a statement. “Hickenlooper’s campaign continues to burn through cash at an alarming rate to bail out their ethics-plagued candidate.”

Meanwhile, Romanoff ended his campaign with more than $455,000 in cash after having his best fundraising quarter ever, raising $1.1 million. His campaign spent $2.9 million total on the primary. His campaign manager, Tara Trujillo, did not return a call seeking comment about the huge sum leftover on primary election day, the final day of the filing period..

Gardner’s most recent report includes a returned contribution of $2,800 to Denver Broncos General Manager John Elway because he’d already donated the maximum. The FEC notified Gardner’s campaign after five of the last six filing deadlines that it had taken donations over the legal limit of $2,600 each for the primary and general election. The campaign has returned nearly $226,000 since the beginning of 2019. 

The FEC also reprimanded Hickenlooper’s campaign after two of his four filings. That campaign has returned nearly $136,000, reports show.

3rd Congressional District money reports show major disparities

Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton left $725,000 on the table on the day he lost the 3rd District primary to Rifle restaurateur Lauren Boebert, the new reports show.

Tipton spent nearly $210,000 from April 1 through June 30, while Boebert spent about $103,000 during the quarter. Most of Tipton’s spending went toward direct mail and digital ads, while Boebert aired TV ads, sent direct mail and paid for digital advertising. Boebert raised nearly $88,000 — less than a third of Tipton’s nearly $313,000 in the quarter.

Lauren Boebert. (Handout)

Boebert went into the general election with just more than $10,000 in the bank after winning the primary, compared with nearly $202,000 for her Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush. 

Mitsch Bush, who lost to Tipton in 2018, handily defeated political newcomer James Iacino in the Democratic primary, outspending him by nearly $913,000 to $781,000. The district stretches from Steamboat Springs to Durango in the west then across to Pueblo.

Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democratic candidate in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks to supporters during a rally in Montrose on Oct. 27, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Given the upset on the Republican side, the race may attract more national attention — and money — ahead of the November election.

Colorado Sun staff writers John Frank and Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette