Joe O'Dea, Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, speaks during a primary election night watch party June 28, 2022, in Denver. O'Dea overcame millions of dollars in Democratic spending to beat state Rep. Ron Hanks. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Democrats have little to show for the millions of dollars they spent over the past month on TV ads, mailers and text messages seeking to influence the outcome of Colorado’s Republican primaries for U.S. Senate, governor and in the hotly contested new 8th Congressional District. 

All of the more extreme GOP candidates Democrats wanted to see win on Tuesday lost, most by significant margins.

The spending strategy has worked before in Colorado for Democrats, and it was successful for the party in Illinois, where they were able to help a far-right Republican gubernatorial candidate win his primary over a more moderate opponent backed by the GOP establishment. So what happened in Colorado this year that made all that spending and the deluge of messaging it paid for so ineffective?

“The messages were confusing to me,” said Ted Trimpa, a longtime Democratic lobbyist and strategist in Colorado who worked on a successful Democratic effort to affect the outcome of the state’s 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. “And I don’t think (the spending) took into account unaffiliateds voting in this primary. 

He added: “We’ve got to give voters credit. They’re smarter than you think. Trying to manipulate only goes so far.”

In 2010, Trimpa was among a group of Democrats who ran TV ads to block then-U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis from securing the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The plan worked, as voters advanced tea party Republican and entrepreneur Dan Maes to the general election, where he lost to Democrat John Hickenlooper.

“Playing in a primary like that is a one-trick pony,” Trimpa told The Colorado Sun. “We did it to Scott McInnis and it worked. One, it was new. Two, it went to a character issue. Our message in that primary was really, really simple. You could have had an eye popped out and an ear missing and you would understand what the message was.”

The ads run against McInnis criticized him over plagiarism allegations

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The ads run by Democrats in this year’s Republican primaries mostly sought to boost the name ID of further right and more controversial GOP candidates, including state Rep. Ron Hanks in the U.S. Senate race, former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez in the gubernatorial contest and Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine in the 8th District. All three fell well short of winning.

Democrats signaled that they thought Hanks, Lopez and Saine would be easier to beat in the general election because of their more conservative views. Hanks and Lopez, for instance, claimed that Donald Trump was the true winner of the 2020 presidential election, a claim that’s unfounded. 

One difference between the Democratic spending in Republican primaries in 2010 and 2022 was that in 2010 Democrats were simply amplifying an existing story about McInnis rather than trying to shape voter opinion. The ads run this year tried to make the case that Hanks, Lopez and Saine were “too conservative” as a way to make them more attractive to Republican primary voters.

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Alan Salazar, who worked on Hickenlooper’s 2010 campaign, said there had been a big lead-up, including intense media coverage, to the Democrats ads criticizing McInnis, now a Mesa County commissioner, in the GOP primary.

“It was a thing,” said Salazar, who is now Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s chief of staff. “This was a problem for him. I think it worked in large part because it was based on a real problem.”

A lot has also changed in Colorado’s voting system since 2010. 

Voters, each of whom are now sent a ballot in the mail, can now cast their votes early, and unaffiliated voters can decide whether they want to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary for just the third election cycle.

With so few primary races on the Democratic side, many more unaffiliated voters opted to cast GOP primary ballots this year than in 2018 and 2022.  

Where the money was spent, and how much of it

Most of the Democratic spending in the GOP primaries this year was in the U.S. Senate race, where Democrats made it clear that they didn’t want to face first-time candidate Joe O’Dea, a moderate Republican who owns a Denver construction company.

Federal political action committee Democratic Colorado spent $4.1 million on TV ads trying to raise Hanks’ profile and attacking O’Dea. Other Democratic groups spent thousands on mailers with the same intent.

O’Dea, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to counter the Democrats’ strategy, crushed Hanks in the primary. He was winning by 10 percentage points as of Wednesday afternoon.

Republican consultant Tyler Sandberg said the Democratic strategy may have backfired.

“Yes, they trolled some people into voting for” Hanks, he said. “But they also lit up moderate and liberal unaffiliated voters to choose a Republican ballot and vote against him.” 

Republican U.S. Senate candidates Ron Hanks, left, and Joe O’Dea discuss health care, abortion and election integrity during a debate on June 20, 2022, hosted by The Colorado Sun and CBS4. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Alvina Vasquez, a spokeswoman for Democratic Colorado, defended the group’s spending.

“We know that Democratic Colorado’s efforts to educate voters on O’Dea’s record and expose his hypocrisy have laid the groundwork to defeat him in November,” she said.

O’Dea will run against Democratic U.S. Sen Michael Bennet in November.

In the governor’s race, Colorado Information Network, a state-level super PAC funded primarily by the Democratic Governors Association, spent $1.5 million on ads benefiting Lopez. A group affiliated with the liberal nonprofit ProgressNow Colorado spent another $467,000 on mailers contrasting Lopez with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, painting Lopez as ultra-conservative.

But University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl was beating Lopez by 6 percentage points on Wednesday afternoon.

Republican candidate for governor Heidi Ganahl speaks during the GOP assembly at the Broadmoor World Arena on Saturday, April 9, 2022, in Colorado Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Democratic interests also appear to be behind mailers in the new 8th District contrasting Saine with Democratic nominee Yadira Caraveo, a state representative, painting Saine as highly conservative. Additionally, national Democratic super PACs, including one affiliated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, spent nearly $300,000 on TV and digital ads in the 8th District promoting Saine and attacking her opponent, state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer.

Kirkmeyer won the GOP nomination in the district by a wide margin.

Kristi Burton Brown, chairwoman of the Colorado GOP, trolled Democrats in a tweet she posted Wednesday morning featuring a gif of a man dropping cash into a fire. 

She joked that the gif was “live footage” of Colorado Democrats.

Republican outside groups, plus better-funded candidates, win

O’Dea, Lopez and Kirkmeyer also outraised their Republican primary opponents and benefited from significant spending by GOP outside groups. 

American Policy Fund, a super PAC funded by several Colorado contractors, spent $1.1 million supporting O’Dea, much of it on TV ads. O’Dea’s wife, Celeste, gave a shout-out to “the contractors association that also made this possible” during the couple’s victory speech Tuesday night.

O’Dea’s campaign significantly outspent Hanks’ campaign, dropping at least $618,000 on TV ads alone. As for Hanks, his entire campaign’s overhead through June 8 was just 17% of the amount O’Dea spent on TV air time, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Kirkmeyer received support from Americans for Prosperity Action and Let America Work, including canvassing, TV ads and mailers. Her campaign also outspent Saine’s campaign by a significant margin, $276,00 to $183,000, through June 8.

Ganahl benefited from spending by state-level super PACs Defend Colorado and Make Colorado Affordable Again. And her campaign spent $1.1 million through June 22, compared to Lopez’s $135,000 in spending during that period.

The Republican primary in Colorado’s 7th Congressional District was one race where the candidate whose campaign raised and spent the most money didn’t win.

Erik Aadland, an Army veteran from Pine, won the contest despite being outspent by multimillionaire economist Tim Reichert, of Golden. 

But Aadland also was aided by For Colorado’s Future, a federal super PAC that supported him with nearly three times as much money as Reichert received from a federal super PAC that supported him, Conservative Leadership for Colorado.

Mainstream GOP, progressive Democratic candidates prevail with outside help

More than $2.7 million was spent by outside groups in Colorado’s legislative primaries, almost evenly split between Republican and Democratic races.

Ready Colorado Action, which is run by Sandberg, the GOP political operative, was the top spender on the Republican side, dropping $530,000 on contests. The group was followed by Make Colorado Affordable Again, which spent nearly $200,000 trying to influence the outcome of contests. 

Both of those conservative super PACs were funded primarily by nonprofit Ready Colorado, which advocates for conservative education policies.

On the Democratic side, liberal super PACs backed by labor unions spent more money than in past election cycles and were successful in several contests.

The top-spending progressive group was Colorado Labor Action, which was funded by the Service Employees International Union. The group spent about $530,000 on primary contests this year, including in the House District 42 Democratic primary in Aurora, where their candidate — Rep. Mandy Lindsay — won.

Colorado Labor Action also successfully backed Thornton City Councilwoman Jenny Willford in her House District 34 Democratic primary in the northern Denver suburbs. 

Colorado Working Families Party’s state-level super PAC, which was also funded by the Service Employees International Union, was the third top Democratic spender. It supported criminal justice activist Elisabeth Epps in her House District 6 Democratic primary against Katie March, a former legislative aide. The race was still too close to call Wednesday. 

National nonprofit Education Reform Now Advocacy was the primary funder of a state-level super PAC called Raising Colorado. Raising Colorado gave money to another state-level super PAC, We Mean Business, which gave money to another group that backed March and opposed Epps in the House District 6 primary.

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....

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...