Colorado Democrats using previous Republican plays in the primary

For Colorado Democrats, the reversal of Roe vs. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court underscores why politicians like Greg Lopez, the top-line candidate in the Republican race to unseat Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, are so dangerous.

Lopez not only believes abortion should be banned in all cases, but also told The Denver Post earlier this month that anyone who becomes pregnant because they were raped should see the pregnancy as a good opportunity.

“I’m a firm believer that a child brings happiness into the lives of people,” he said. “It may not have been something that you planned on, it was something you didn’t agree to, but for me a child brings happiness.”

Democratic leaders and groups in Colorado roundly and regularly denounce Lopez and other politicians for these kinds of remarks. But at the same time, Democratic campaign groups are spending millions to advance those politicians’ careers — temporarily.

These groups have run ads and mailers and sent out texts and emails labeling Lopez, U.S. Senate candidate Ron Hanks and 8th Congressional District candidate Lori Saine as “too conservative” for the electorate. At first glance, these could seem like nothing more than Democratic attacks on far-right candidates with whom the ad buyers genuinely disagree on major issues. But the real point of the ads, many strategists agree, is to boost the profile of these candidates precisely because they are so far-right — and thus probably easier for Democrats in this blue-for-now state to defeat in November.

Not a new play

It’s not exactly a new playbook; outraged as they say are, Republicans have done this in Colorado, too, as recently as the 2020 U.S. Senate race. But the amount of money — more than $4 million in this year’s U.S. Senate race alone — from Democrats meddling in Republican primaries is unprecedented here.

There’s something else that makes this new: the candidates whose profiles Democrats are boosting are people Democrats not only disagree with, but whom they decry as threats to American democracy. Lopez, Hanks and Saine are among a growing number of outspoken election deniers either currently in positions of power or running for such positions in November.

The Colorado Democratic Party said it has distributed two mailers attacking Hanks, the top-line U.S. Senate candidate who rallied outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and denies the legitimate results of the 2020 election. Some Republican voters recently received texts from Democratic Party volunteers that read, in part, “Ron Hanks believes Pres. Biden’s election was a fraud. If elected, he’ll try to ban all abortions, and basically get rid of gun control laws.”

Those traits make Hanks appealing to many conservative voters, as evidenced by his victory at the party’s state assembly in April. But Morgan Carroll, the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, said that the anti-Hanks messaging her office has done is really about pointing out how extreme Hanks is. Carroll said she’s alarmed by what passes for “moderate” in today’s Colorado GOP, and that it’s important to tell voters about problematic candidates.

“He is a bad fit for Colorado! He is too conservative for Colorado!” she said. “That’s telling the truth and holding him accountable.”

The Democratic Governors Association, which has run its own paid content about “too conservative” Lopez, told The Denver Post something similar. A spokeswoman emailed a brief statement calling Lopez “too extreme and out-of-touch.” The group would not answer a follow-up question about why they’d spend on this primary race in ways that could help Lopez in the short term.

Several key presumed beneficiaries of these ads — Polis, Bennet and state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, the Democratic nominee for the 8th Congressional District — all declined through spokespeople to comment for this story. (The Post contacted Bennet in person Friday, but he again declined to comment because, he said, the spending “is not associated with my campaign.”)

Democrats’ goals

A dozen different politicians and political operatives interviewed for this story unanimously agreed in their respective assessments of why liberal interests are running ads about far-right candidates: to help those candidates win primaries, beat them in the general election and hope that those candidates drag down Republicans in down-ballot races.

“If they (the GOP) are going to hand a tool to the opposition, or hand an opportunity to the opposition, the opposition should take advantage of that. Just thinking from a purely political tactical standpoint,” said Jim Carpenter, a veteran Democratic strategist in Colorado who is not working on any of this year’s races, but who has managed successful U.S. Senate races in the past.

“If you’re smart in this business, you never take anything for granted. You employ the tools that you can to try to accomplish your goal here, which is to win, … and sometimes those tactics are controversial.”

The stakes are, as always, high this year. Beyond the top-of-the-ticket races, Republicans stand a solid chance of flipping the state Senate, which would dramatically alter Colorado politics after four years of total Democratic control at the state Capitol.

“It’s a real concern,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who, as co-chair of the campaign Democratic Senate Campaign Fund, plays an important role in coordinating the effort to maintain control of the chamber. “I do think we’re vulnerable this year, given that it’s a midterm election under a Democratic president who is, I would say, struggling with favorability.”

Moreno said the ads calling candidates “too conservative” serve multiple purposes.

“With the spending you’re seeing to essentially prop up more conservative candidates, it possibly could be helpful for down-ballot candidates,” he said. “But the bigger issue with that, too, is that you’re demonstrating to voters that there is an element of the opposite party that is completely out of touch. … We can talk all day about whether it’s the moral or right thing to do, but at the end of the day it could be helpful and I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.”

State Rep. Colin Larson, a Ken Caryl Republican who backs Joe O’Dea, Hanks’ opponent, called the Democratic strategy “so cynical.”

“The man is mentally unfit for office,” Larson said of Hanks. Colorado voters have made clear their distaste for Trump and Trumpism, and recent electoral history in Colorado clearly indicates the more moderate O’Dea should have a better chance at beating incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in November.

Democrats, Larson said, “are like, ‘We have to get this Ron Hanks nutjob elected because he’s crazy and he’s anathema to most Republicans’ — like myself. The man is mentally unfit for office.

“They are literally going to take a look at the field and say this man who they think is so dangerous, a threat in their view to democracy — and they’re spending millions of dollars to get him elected?”

Fundraising strategy

Republicans have created an opening for this strategy to be effective for Democrats who want to help easier-to-beat GOP opponents reach the general election. In major races, across the board, Democrats are generally ahead and often dominant in fundraising.

Take the governor’s race, for one: Lopez’s opponent, establishment pick and University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, has raised an underwhelming amount of money and mostly failed so far to generate real grassroots enthusiasm, to the dismay of Republican political consultants. Lopez has little experience in elected office, says extremely controversial things on a regular basis and has raised far less money than Ganahl. Yet, polling shows he could well win the primary on Tuesday.

The competitiveness of these races is in large part a result of heavy demonstrated appetite by some conservative voters for election denial. That, coupled with low spending on the GOP side, means the Democrats have a greater chance of capturing attention and swinging races.

State Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and chair of the Senate Majority Fund to elect Republicans, said his task — the opposite of Moreno’s — isn’t changed much by Democratic meddling. He’s eyeing about a half-dozen state Senate races that should be competitive, and he expects he can win some whether or not an election denier — or two, or more — is leading the GOP ticket.

Lundeen recalls the 2010 gubernatorial contest, in which Democratic groups spent big to run ads against the more moderate and better-known Republican. Democrat John Hickenlooper won easily that year as unpopular conservatives fought for second and third places. But even as Democrats won the governor’s race, Republicans made gains that year in statehouse elections, even flipping the House.

“There are all sorts of strategies that get unfolded in the course of any political campaign,” Lundeen said. “I’ll let others litigate the cynicism or righteousness of those strategies, but the reality is all politics is local.”

Denver Post reporter Nick Coltrain contributed to this report

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