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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)

The Senate Majority PAC, a group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, was behind the shadowy, $4 million campaign to encourage voters in Colorado’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate last month to back state Rep. Ron Hanks.

Hanks, an election conspiracist and hard-line conservative, lost by a wide margin to Joe O’Dea, a first-time candidate and the owner of a Denver construction company. O’Dea faces Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in November. 

The Senate Majority PAC, known as SMP, was the lone donor to Democratic Colorado, another super PAC that spent millions on TV and digital ads boosting Hanks’ profile and attacking O’Dea.

SMP’s link to Democratic Colorado was revealed in a campaign finance filing Wednesday night. Democratic Colorado also closed its account with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday and returned about $3,000 to SMP, further proof that the group was formed for the sole purpose of influencing Colorado’s Republican primary. 

Democratic Colorado’s organizers were so keen on keeping their funders secret that their address was listed as a UPS Store in Denver’s Cherry Creek North neighborhood. If it weren’t for the PAC’s name it might have been unclear which political party the group was linked to.

“We saw two deeply flawed candidates running against each other so we worked to weaken both their campaigns,” JB Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, told The Colorado Sun in a written statement.

Dark-money nonprofit Majority Forward, which doesn’t legally have to disclose its donors, is a major contributor to SMP, at $28 million of the group’s $65 million raised this election cycle through June 30, per federal reports.

Majority Forward is the same nonprofit that fueled a $1.5 million campaign in the 2020 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Colorado to support former Gov. John Hickenlooper over former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Hickenlooper won the primary and went on to beat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in the general election.

Democratic Colorado’s ad campaign this year painted Hanks as the most conservative candidate in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in the apparent hope that he would be more appealing to GOP voters. The idea behind the initiative was that Hanks would be easier for Bennet to beat in November. 

SMP released a statement after O’Dea won the primary June 28 calling him too  conservative and criticizing him for “racing to the right” during the primary. While Democratic Colorado’s preferred candidate may not have won, O’Dea and his supporters spent millions to ensure O’Dea would win. 

As a result, O’Dea was at a major cash disadvantage to Bennet heading into July.

“National Republicans are now saddled with propping up a not ready for prime-time candidate in Joe O’Dea, who has less money in the bank today than he did at the beginning of the year,” Poersch said in his statement, celebrating the campaign as a success.

Democratic Colorado’s campaign wasn’t the only effort undertaken by Democratic groups to help Hanks and more extreme Republican candidates in other races.  

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., attends a Senate Finance Committee hearing as he returns to Capitol Hill after dropping out of the presidential race following a poor showing in New Hampshire, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Those advertising campaigns also failed in Colorado’s highly competitive new 8th Congressional District and in the GOP primary for governor.

It’s still unclear who sent some mailers targeting O’Dea and favoring Hanks. O’Dea filed a federal lawsuit over the mailers last month, but that legal action likely won’t be concluded until after the Nov. 8 election.Colorado is one of several states where Democratic groups are funding ads promoting the most extreme or controversial GOP candidates, theorizing they’d be the easiest for Democrats to defeat in the general election in November. Republicans have deployed similar tactics in Colorado and across the country in previous election cycles.

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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...