John Hickenlooper FILE
CNN  — 

A new political group this week launched a Spanish-language ad attacking John Hickenlooper’s rival in the Colorado Democratic primary, the latest sign of growing concerns about the former governor’s prospects in a race that’s crucial to Democratic hopes of seizing the US Senate from Republicans.

The 30-second commercial from Let’s Turn Colorado Blue hits former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff for his support of immigration bills in 2006 before concluding in Spanish that Romanoff was “Bad for us then. Bad for us now.”

The group formed last week and already has plowed more than $1 million into ads attacking Romanoff, Federal Election Commission records show. The group’s last-minute formation means that it will not have to disclose the source of its money before Colorado’s Democratic primary on June 30.

Hickenlooper, a former two-term governor and short-lived 2020 candidate for the presidency, was considered a shoo-in for the Democratic Senate nomination before a series of stumbles in June. Hickenlooper said he “tripped” when he said that “Black Lives Matter” means that “every life matters” – a description activists say discounts the systemic discrimination against Black people.

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission ordered Hickenlooper to pay a $2,750 for twice violating ethics laws in 2018 by accepting a private flight and fancy dinners. And Hickenlooper apologized for resurfaced comments he made in 2014 comparing politicians to slaves being whipped to row “an ancient slave ship.”

The race is considered a must-win for Democrats if they hope to take back the Senate. The party needs to flip the White House and at least three seats to reclaim the majority and potentially more, considering that they are defending Sen. Doug Jones in deep-red Alabama.

The battle for Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s seat has drawn big spending.

Candidates and outside groups have spent more $36 million on television and digital advertising on the Colorado contest, according to data collected by the Kantar/CMAG, which tracks political advertising. Another Democratic super PAC, the Senate Majority PAC, was the largest spender on advertising as of Wednesday morning, at nearly $8.4 million, followed by the Senate’s Republican campaign arm at $6.5 million, CMAG’s data show.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said there’s a growing pattern of super PACs that “pop up” just in time to influence contests, while skirting disclosure requirements.

Voters, she said, “can’t see the whole picture until they see who’s funding these shadow campaigns.”

Let’s Turn Colorado Blue won’t have to disclose its contributors until mid-July.

When asked about the new super PAC, Hickenlooper’s aides did not specifically address Let’s Turn Colorado Blue’s activity, but pointed the former governor’s pledge to reform politics, including a pledge remove so-called dark money.

Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman Melissa Miller said his campaign is the only one “running positive ads.”

“It’s a shame Cory Gardner, Andrew Romanoff, Mitch McConnell, and dark money groups injected a negative tone into this race,” she said in a statement.

The new, pro-Hickenlooper super PAC was launched June 16, a day after Hickenlooper’s apology for the slave ship comments. Romanoff, the Gardner campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee all have run ads, targeting Hickenlooper.

In a statement, Mannie Rodriquez – a longtime Colorado Democratic activist who serves as treasurer of Let’s Turn Colorado Blue – defended the super PAC’s actions.

“We could not sit idly by as the Romanoff campaign continued to attack John Hickenlooper and Cory Gardner and national Republican groups jumped into the middle of this primary – running millions of dollars in negative ads aimed at taking down Hickenlooper,” he said.

He described the super PAC as “made up of people who know that our best shot at defeating Cory Gardner is with John Hickenlooper, a proven and effective leader who will look out for all of us.”

Romanoff, viewed as the underdog in the race, has highlighted Hickenlooper’s recent miscues and attacked the former governor for saying he wants to get dark money out of politics while benefiting from the super PAC.

“It’s pathetic that John Hickenlooper is hiding behind a desperate dark money attack to do his dirty work,” Romanoff told CNN on Wednesday. “It’s part and parcel of the way Washington works.”

The former governor’s supporters say attacks on Hickenlooper’s character are disingenuous and won’t work.

Alan Salazar, a former top strategist and adviser for Hickenlooper who is now chief of staff to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, said that Hickenlooper will win the primary and the general election despite his latest struggles.

“No amount of fumbles or bumbles, or missteps, or foot in mouth moments that John has had, and he’s had many, but none of them will amount to the heavy dead weight that Donald Trump has around Cory Gardner,” he said.

“I expect that Cory Gardner will have to run for reelection distancing himself as much as possible from Donald Trump,” added Salazar. “The question is whether anybody is going to believe it after four years.”

This week, Hickenlooper released a new ad, highlighting his endorsement by prominent Democrats, such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The NRSC, meanwhile, plans to “aggressively” focus on Hickenlooper’s ethics violation, said committee spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez.

The ad from the pro-Hickenlooper super PAC criticizes Romanoff for his role in passing immigration bills. Among other things, Romanoff supported a measure that required local authorities to report arrests of undocumented people to the federal government.

Romanoff has apologized for his role in the immigration provisions. He said they were part of a compromise aimed at stopping the advance of a far tougher, anti-immigrant ballot measure to change the state’s Constitution.

“I worked as hard as I possibly could to keep a constitutional amendment off the ballot, and we succeeded,” Romanoff told CNN. “The price of that victory was a compromise I regret.”