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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a "car rally" at Denver's East High School on Oct. 8, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Democrat John Hickenlooper’s three-month $22.6 million cash haul was nearly three times the $7.8 million raised by Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who posted his best fundraising quarter ever.

Hickenlooper ended the July-through-September quarter with about $7.2 million in the bank, while Gardner had $6.8 million. It was the first time the former governor held a cash advantage over the incumbent. Hickenlooper spent nearly $20 million, and Gardner spent $11.7 million.

The Democrat has now outraised Gardner over the course of the U.S. Senate campaign with $36.8 million in total contributions, compared with the Republican’s $25.3 million. Gardner started raising money in January 2015, shortly after taking office. Hickenlooper entered the Senate contest in August 2019 after abandoning a presidential bid.

Hickenlooper’s third-quarter total exceeded the entire $20.5 million raised by former Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in the 2014 Senate race, the previous Colorado record. Gardner set a personal record exceeding the $4.4 million he raised in one period in 2014.

The massive haul comes as polls continue to show Hickenlooper leading Gardner in the race by roughly 10 percentage points. Coloradans have already been voting for a week, and early turnout numbers indicate major enthusiasm among Democrats, who normally wait until the last minute to cast their ballots.

MORE: How Cory Gardner and John Hickenlooper are polling in the 2020 U.S. Senate election

Hickenlooper’s fundraising dominance is part of a trend of Democratic challengers across the country vastly outraising Republican Senate incumbents in the final quarter before the election. Much of the money for Hickenlooper and other candidates arrived after the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18.

Republicans are rushing to fill Ginsburg’s open seat with conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, nominated by President Donald Trump. Democrats are crying foul, recalling the GOP’s refusal to consider Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by President Barack Obama after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia seven months before the 2016 election.

Democratic donors appear to be voting with their credit cards, and small donors outside of Colorado fueled Hickenlooper’s fundraising. More than $8.6 million, or 38%, of the Democrat’s fundraising was unitemized contributions of $200 or less, reports show.

And $10.5 million of the Democrat’s $14 million in itemized donations came via the online fundraising platform ActBlue. That platform encourages donors to give to multiple Democratic candidates in amounts small or large, an action that can be taken on a smartphone.

Nearly $4.6 million, or about one-third, came on the day of or the days after Ginsburg’s death. But the partisan reaction to the Supreme Court vacancy also helped Gardner. He raised about $2 million — about 35% of his itemized contributions — after the justice’s death.

Of Gardner’s $6 million in itemized contributions, 41% came from Coloradans. Hickenlooper, on the other hand, received 22% of his itemized donations for the quarter from Californians and 21% from Coloradans.

Big cash infusions from outside groups lead to big TV ad buys

Both candidates are spending heavily on TV advertising. Hickenlooper spent $13.3 million from July through Wednesday and Gardner dropped $10.5 million, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of TV contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission. 

But super PACs and dark money nonprofits are outspending the candidates on TV, with $28.5 million in spending from nearly 20 groups between July and Wednesday. The biggest spenders are affiliated with Democratic or Republican Senate leadership.

Some of the groups are likely to spend even more in the lead up to Nov. 3.

ESA Fund, a super PAC previously known as Ending Spending Action, has booked nearly $478,000 in ads in recent days. The group is solely funded by Marlene Ricketts, of Omaha, the wife of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. Six years ago, Ending Spending Action spent $1.4 million on TV ads opposing Democratic incumbent Mark Udall in the final weeks of the contest.

Unite for Colorado Action is spending $185,000 on digital ads opposing Hickenlooper. The federal super PAC is funded by a related nonprofit that spent heavily against Hickenlooper earlier this year.

Senate Majority PAC pulls spending

A major Democratic group on Friday pulled its last remaining ads from Colorado’s U.S. Senate race, a sign that the party thinks its nominee has the crucial race in the bag.

Senate Majority PAC said it will cancel $1.2 million in television ads and spend the money elsewhere as Democrats press a newly expanded Senate map, which Republicans on the run in GOP strongholds such as Alaska and South Carolina.

“We believe Gov. Hickenlooper is in good shape heading into the final stretch,” Senate Majority PAC spokeswoman Rachel Irwin said.

Republicans are still spending modestly to support Gardner. Last week the Republican counterpart to Senate Majority PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, added another $1 million to its spending in Colorado as part of a $22 million blitz to defend seats around the country.

Democrats need a net gain of three seats in the Senate and a victory in the presidential race in order to wrest control of the chamber. They have long counted on flipping the Colorado seat.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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...