Election NRSC Firestone Ad Hickenlooper

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper is pictured in a National Republican Senatorial Committee attack ad that features the deadly 2017 Firestone pipeline explosion. Hickenlooper's Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, on July 21, 2020, called on the NRSC to stop airing the ad after speaking with Erin Martinez, whose husband and brother were killed in the blast, but the GOP group refused.

It’s as predictable as campaign yard signs sprouting like dandelions on lawns across the state in an election year.

Since 2010, when U.S. Supreme Court rulings opened the floodgates to virtually unlimited outside spending in federal elections, there’s a good chance at least one independent expenditure group will run an attack ad that provokes outrage, leading to calls for the candidate benefiting from the ad to denounce it.

That’s what happened last week, when the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched its latest ad attacking former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Democratic challenger running against Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.

The 30-second spot opens with images of the deadly April 17, 2017, house explosion in Firestone, caused by an abandoned, severed gas line.

The ad makes claims about Hickenlooper’s response to the explosion that fact-checkers have called into question — “lacks proof” and “misleading” were two of the more polite assessments — but it’s the violent footage of a blast ripping through the dwelling that drew the swiftest condemnation.

Explosion survivor Erin Martinez, whose husband, Mark Martinez, and brother, Joey Irwin, were killed in the blast, almost immediately demanded the NRSC stop airing the ad in a statement issued hours after it began airing.

"I woke up this morning to hear about a horrifying political ad using images from the explosion and fire that destroyed my life and killed my husband, Mark, and my brother Joey,” she told Colorado Politics.

"My family and I have worked extremely hard to create positive changes that will keep my story from happening to anyone else and in doing so, honoring the memories of Mark and Joey. Not a single day goes by that we are not heartbroken and struck with unimaginable grief. This ad uses my story in a negative light and disgraces the memory of Mark and Joey."

She added that every time she sees the ad, which has been airing in heavy rotation, she worries about her children seeing it.

"To see this used for political purposes is heartbreaking,” she said.

Hickenlooper and his allies joined calls for the NRSC to “stop exploiting this tragedy and distorting the facts to score political points,” but the organization — the campaign arm of the Senate Republicans — refused.

Gardner, too, stayed quiet for days, though five days after the ad was released — and four days after Martinez said she first reached out to him — the Republican said he spoke with Martinez and told her he wouldn’t have run the ad and hoped it would stop airing.

"If I had the power to take down the ad, I would,” Gardner said in a July 21 statement to POLITICO.

According to fact-checkers at local TV stations, the ad makes specious allegations about Hickenlooper’s response to the explosion, which took place during his second term as governor.

One claim in particular, that no fines were assessed against the companies responsible while Hickenlooper was governor, “smells like sh--,” says 9News political reporter Marshall Zelinger, as a smiling poop emoji flashes on screen. That’s because the state’s oil and gas commission imposed the largest fine in state history on one of the companies responsible, following an investigation that was initiated during the Hickenlooper administration.

Even after Gardner issued his condemnation, the NRSC refused to stop running the ad.

In a statement to Colorado Politics, a spokeswoman for the GOP group doubled down on the ad — or tripled down, really, since it was the same statement issued five days earlier when Martinez had implored the NRSC to stop exploiting her family’s tragedy for political purposes.

In the days since, the Hickenlooper campaign slammed Gardner and the campaign committee he helmed during the last cycle, arguing that the senator was trying to have it both ways — getting credit for asking that the ad stop running, but only after the NRSC had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars blanketing the airwaves with the ad and its disturbing footage.

“The kind of grief Ms. Martinez and her family have survived is unimaginable, and their public fight to keep other Colorado families safe is incredibly important," said Joanna Rodriguez, who went on to repeat some of the ad’s charges.

As of the afternoon of July 23, the NRSC ad was still airing, and the Hickenlooper campaign was still excoriating Gardner for doing nothing to force it from the air — “despite pleas from survivor Erin Martinez,” the campaign said in a release.

It hasn’t always turned out that way in Colorado.

Last cycle, national gun-safety organization Giffords PAC — named after founder Gabby Giffords, a former Arizona congresswoman who was wounded in a 2011 Tucson shooting at a constituent-outreach event — launched an alarming ad on Sept. 24, 2018, attacking then-U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman for the Aurora Republican’s record on gun control.

The ad, part of a $1.5 million campaign waged against Coffman, depicted text messages sent by a student named Emily to her mother during a school shooting.

“Someone has a gun and they can’t find him. … I’m so scared. I love u. Tell dad I love him,” the messages read.

“NRA-backed politicians, like Congressman Mike Coffman, aren’t doing anything to prevent it from happening in real life,” the ad’s narrator added.

The problem was, the ad strongly echoed the particulars of the Sept. 27, 2006, shooting at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, when 16-year-old Emily Keyes was killed by a gunman after texting her family.

"I luv u guys," was her final text.

Coffman immediately called on Giffords PAC to pull the ad.

“I respect Gabby Giffords, but exploiting the name and horrible death of one of our own to try to win an election is beneath basic human dignity. I can take criticism, but this is gross,” Coffman tweeted.

"The Giffords Super PAC ad is not a hypothetical. It exploits a real and horrible tragedy that happened in Colorado. It is beyond gross to exploit the tragedy for partisan political gain."

The Keyes family also asked the PAC to remove the ad.

The day after it began airing, a spokesman for Giffords apologized and said the organization hadn’t intended to invoke the 2006 shooting and would change the ad so it didn’t include a name.

“This ad was not modeled after any one individual tragedy,” said Peter Ambler, the PAC’s director. “Given how many families have experienced gun violence tragedies, there isn’t any name we could have used that wouldn’t be connected to a victim somewhere.”

Emily’s parents, John-Michael and Ellen Keyes, told Colorado Politics news partners 9News that he didn’t believe the similarity with the shooting that killed his daughter was intentional.

Jason Crow, the Democrat who went on to unseat Coffman in November and is seeking a second term this year, also asked Giffords to take down the ad, and a campaign spokesman said the candidate approved of changing it.

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