Colorado residents have reported getting mysterious anonymous text messages bashing John Hickenlooper, the Democratic Senate candidate seeking to oust Republican Sen. Cory Gardner this November.
The texts feature a link to a 2014 clip of Hickenlooper comparing the job of a political scheduler to being on a slave ship, and a Washington Post article on a recent ethics scandal; an independent ethics panel in Colorado said Hickenlooper violated state law as governor in 2018 by accepting rides in a private jet and a Maserati limousine. The texts call Hickenlooper “out of touch” and warn he’s a risk to Democrats’ chances to flip the Senate.
Some of the recipients tweeted that they responded to the texts inquiring about their origins but did not hear back.
Political campaigning via text is commonplace these days, as candidates and political parties use cellphone numbers to fundraise, organize and turn out more voters to the polls. But Colorado has strict disclosure laws around political messaging; political candidates, political parties and issues committees must disclose themselves either directly in the text message, or in a direct link in the primary message. Federal disclosure laws require that the business, individual or corporate entity behind a political message must be stated clearly at the beginning of that messaging, including in texts. However, some dark money groups could fall between the cracks in these disclosure laws. Super PACs are required to disclose election spending to the Federal Election Commission, while political nonprofits are not.
These texts don’t say where they’re coming from.
The text messages included shortened links — truncated URLs — that can be traced back to Tele-Town Hall LLC, a Virginia-based company that runs phone-based political communications. The Colorado Republican Party has previously used Tele-Town Hall, reporting $500 in expenditures in January, and another $8,800 last year for autodialing. It has not reported using the company in recent months. Joe Jackson, a spokesperson with the Colorado GOP, said “definitively we had nothing to do with this from the state party side,” adding that the state party has not run text campaigns about Hickenlooper in the Senate race thus far. The national Republican Party also said it didn’t know anything about the texts.
The Hickenlooper campaign said it has received dozens of complaints about the texts and estimates they have gone to a “very wide universe of tens of thousands of Democratic primary voters,” based on receiving a complaint from one supporter who could not be found in the Democratic voter contact database.
Hickenlooper, who served as governor from 2011 through 2019, is leading the Democratic Senate primary in Colorado, jumping in after a failed presidential bid last year. The primary is scheduled for June 30. He was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee upon entering the race.
Colorado is by far Democrats’ best chance at kicking a Republican out of the Senate; head-to-head polls in the last several months have shown Hickenlooper with a double-digit advantage over Gardner. But Hickenlooper is known for his gaffes, and now dogged by this ethics violation, hasn’t had the smoothest run. Gardner released an ad this week highlighting Hickenlooper’s past public comments explicitly stating he didn’t want to run for Senate.
In recent weeks, Andrew Romanoff, a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives, has been gaining steam by running to Hickenlooper’s left. A recently disclosed internal poll from Romanoff’s campaign showed him closing the gap with Hickenlooper to 12 percentage points, after trailing the former governor by 49 points last October. Romanoff’s campaign said it didn’t know anything about the text campaign.
Hickenlooper’s campaign is blaming Republicans for the texts.
“Anonymous Republicans are trying to meddle in another Democratic Senate primary, spreading misleading attacks because they know John will defeat Cory Gardner,” said campaign spokesperson Melissa Miller. “Coloradans won’t be fooled, they know that John’s work to bring people together gets results: expanding health care to 500,000 more Coloradans, protecting a woman’s right to choose, passing gun safety reforms and a ban on high capacity magazines, and implementing ‘gold-standard’ methane regulations.”
Gardner’s campaign, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Tele-Town Hall did not respond to requests for comment.