The group is currently running an ad burnishing state Rep. Ron Hanks’ conservative credentials — a spot that GOP strategists say will undoubtedly boost his underfunded effort in the June 28 Republican primary.
Hanks, who believes former President Donald Trump won in 2020 and that all abortions should be outlawed, has raised just $38,000 throughout the course of his Senate campaign and has never placed a TV ad of his own. He is up against Joe O’Dea, whom many in the GOP think could have a shot at winning over crucial unaffiliated and disaffected Democratic voters in November.
While Democrats have dominated statewide races in recent years — President Joe Biden won Colorado by double digits in 2020 — the president’s approval ratings are currently underwater in the blue state.
“Beating Hanks in the general election is a layup,” said Greg Brophy, a GOP strategist and former Colorado state legislator who is supporting O’Dea. “If Democrats spend $1 million to help Hanks win the GOP primary, that will save them $20 million in the general. It’s actually brilliant.”
Bennet is seeking reelection to his third term after eking out victories in 2010 and 2016. In both races, he failed to crack 50 percent of the vote. Polling earlier this year showed Bennet tied with a generic Republican candidate on the general election ballot, a sign of the favorable midterm environment for the GOP.
The Democratic strategy has prompted flashbacks of Republicans’ disastrous 2012 Senate election in Missouri, when vulnerable Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill similarly placed ads designed to influence the Republican primary. The ads her campaign purchased to play up Todd Akin’s conservative credentials helped him secure the nomination over other Republican contenders who were viewed as stronger general election candidates.
The strategy paid dividends after Akin blundered an interview question about abortion — he said at the time that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant — and sparked a public outcry. McCaskill went on to beat him by 15 percentage points in an election that Republicans were once expected to win.
Democrats in Colorado have succeeded with the strategy, too. Democratic spending in the state’s 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary helped political newcomer Dan Maes narrowly take the nomination over an establishment Republican. That fall, Maes received just 11 percent of the vote — much less than even the third-party candidate on the ballot — and Democrat John Hickenlooper won the governor’s office.
As speculation mounted among Republicans on Wednesday that national Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC was funding the Hanks ad, the super PAC, operated by allies of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), remained tight-lipped.
A spokesperson for Senate Majority PAC declined to say whether the group was behind the ad or connected with Democratic Colorado, a super PAC that registered with the FEC on Thursday. Reached by phone, the super PAC’s treasurer, a Colorado Democratic operative, said she was merely listed as the group’s registered agent and was not involved, declining to provide additional information.
Senate Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC aligned with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), declined to comment on whether it will get involved in the primary to support O’Dea, something the group has done in past GOP contests. Beyond reserving $141 million of national ad time this year, SLF most recently dropped $2 million in the Alabama Republican Senate primary to oppose Rep. Mo Brooks.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee continues to hold firm on Sen. Rick Scott’s (R-Fla.) policy not to intervene in open-seat primaries, but signaled on Wednesday that they believe the new ad could cause problems. In a carefully worded press release, the NRSC accused Democrats of trying to “stir up drama” by funding the Hanks ad.
“Just goes to show you how vulnerable Michael Bennet is in a state that Joe Biden won by more than 13 points,” the NRSC statement said.
Dustin Zvonek, a Republican on the Aurora city council, said Republicans are “set to make gains” in the state in November, potential victories that “could really change the narrative of Colorado being a blue state.”
A Hanks nomination, said Zvonek, who won his seat last fall in an election that resulted in the ouster of multiple Democratic council members, would be a step backward for GOP efforts to gain ground in the state, in part due to Hanks’ continued insistence that Trump won the 2020 election.
“In Colorado, that’s just not a message that’s going to help him in the general election,” Zvonek said. “Forty-four percent of our electorate is unaffiliated voters. They don’t care about red team or blue team. They want people who are going to solve problems.”
Hanks’ campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Privately, national Republican officials concede there will likely be no use in spending on the Senate race this fall if Hanks is the nominee. His far-right stances would be a problem in a general election, as would his inability to raise money, said one Republican operative involved in Senate races.
“In that scenario,” the Republican operative said, “Washington [state] becomes a better pickup than Colorado.”
Republicans are eyeing Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) seat this fall despite the solidly blue nature of the state, and Scott, the NRSC chairman, has suggested Republicans could have a shot at flipping it with Tiffany Smiley, the likely GOP nominee. While Biden won Colorado by 13 percentage points, he won Washington by 20 points. Polling in both states show the Democratic senators up for reelection are in a vulnerable position.
While O’Dea waits to see whether top Republicans will swoop in to help, his campaign on Wednesday was sounding the alarm to allies and donors around the state, according to a person familiar with the conversations. “There will be an all-out blitz” on fundraising now, the person said.
Internal polling provided by O’Dea’s campaign to POLITICO shows the self-made construction company owner leading Hanks 33 percent to 12 percent, with more than half of Republican voters undecided. The campaign has booked television and radio ads totaling $325,000, but expects to increase that figure.
In a statement, O’Dea accused Democrats of “hijacking the Republican nomination for an unserious candidate who has zero chance of winning.”
O’Dea was in D.C. on Tuesday meeting with Republican senators. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) spoke favorably about their meetings with O’Dea.
Thune said he had “heard some” about Hanks, but doesn’t know him.
“I just think that we need somebody, obviously, that’s electable in the fall,” Thune said. “And I think Colorado, although people would argue that it’s probably not an easy state for us to win, if we get a good tailwind and we have a good candidate, you never know. So I think you want to be prepared. And he at least seemed, to me, to be a very credible possibility for us.”
The Republican Senate primary isn’t the only Colorado contest where Democrats are meddling this year. Democrats are also trying to give a last-minute boost to former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez in his GOP gubernatorial primary against Heidi Ganahl, a member of the regents of the University of Colorado and the only Republican in statewide elected office.
A group called the Colorado Information Network started running an ad earlier this week calling Lopez “too conservative for Colorado” and highlighting his support for Trump, his “unapologetically pro-life” stance and more. More than $1.5 million in airtime has been booked by the liberal group between Tuesday and the late June primary, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking firm.
The organization purchasing the Lopez ad is working with the prominent Democratic consulting firm GMMB, according to FCC filings, and the group’s stated purpose on filings with the Colorado secretary of state is “advocating for statewide Democratic candidates and opposing [Republican] candidates.”
The source of the group’s funding is not immediately clear. A person listed as its point of contact did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democrats have also meddled in other Republican primaries this year, including in Illinois, where the Democratic Governors Association is spending millions ahead of the GOP contest, according to AdImpact.
Zach Montellaro and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.