Last week, as Colorado voters were busy returning ballots for the June primary, Gov. Jared Polis let it be known that he wasn't happy with a TV ad released by a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner.
The 30-second ad from Andrew Romanoff's campaign featured footage from a decade-old ad aired by primary rival John Hickenlooper when the then-Denver mayor launched his first run for governor.
In the original 2010 Hickenlooper ad, the amiable former brewpub owner pledged to run a clean campaign while taking shower after shower — with his clothes on — to demonstrate that he didn't like negative campaigning.
While the ad only ran for a few weeks, it won national accolades as one of the best ads of the year and lodged itself in Colorado's political psyche, helping define Hickenlooper's brand. A Democratic pollster told Colorado Politics recently that nearly everyone remembers the ad when he's asked voters in focus groups about Hickenlooper — possibly because nearly every profile of the politician includes mention of the ad.
But in Romanoff's version, Hickenlooper isn't bemoaning negative ads, he's starring in one.
"Scrub harder, Hick," says the narrator, sounding as disappointed as can be. "Whoa. We can’t take this kind of risk if we’re going to beat Cory Gardner."
The ad intercuts images of Hickenlooper getting drenched with headlines summarizing a series of attacks leveled by Romanoff, who has been running against Hickenlooper from the left.
"You gotta ask yourself," the narrator says, "why does John Hickenlooper take so many showers?"
The ad suggests it's because oil and gas companies were involved in public-private partnerships that funded initiatives in Hickenlooper's administration, or maybe it's because the state's Independent Ethics Commission found Hickenlooper in contempt on the way to ruling he violated a state ethics law. Perhaps it's the notoriously gaffe-prone candidate's recent apology for comparing busy politicians to galley slaves, forced to row by their whip-wielding master.
Whatever it is, Polis didn't sound impressed with Romanoff's clever move, flipping his own ad back on Hickenlooper.
"I’m disappointed that Andrew Romanoff has chosen to throw mud and attack John Hickenlooper instead of focusing on his own vision and record," said Polis, who hasn't taken sides in the primary.
"There is much more that unites Democrats than divides us, and both John and Andrew have done a lot for Colorado. I hope that Andrew reconsiders this counterproductive attack ad, so that we can put Democrats in the best position to win in November."
Within hours, a cavalcade of leading Colorado Democrats — mostly but not all Hickenlooper supporters — had joined the call for Romanoff to leave the negative ads to the Republicans, who had been blanketing channels with their own attacks on the popular former governor.
"It's clear who Republicans fear in November — and rightly so," said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a staunch Hickenlooper ally who survived a barrage of attacks from Romanoff in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary.
"Andrew offers cynical, false attacks that play into the Republicans’ hands. This is all part of the same playbook Andrew used against my campaign in 2010 — false attack after false attack. It didn’t work then, and we can’t allow it to work now.”
Refusing to bow to the party pressure, Romanoff's campaign manager doubled down.
"Why would we hand Cory Gardner an advantage by nominating a candidate who defied a subpoena, got held in contempt and broke the law?" said Tara Trujillo. "The best way to beat Gardner — and bring a fresh, progressive voice to the Senate — is to make Andrew Romanoff the Democratic nominee."
Days later, Hickenlooper released an ad that included a reference to Polis' criticism of Romanoff.
While the ad touted endorsements from Democratic senators and former Hickenlooper presidential primary opponents Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, it began with a jab at Romanoff.
"Jared Polis just slammed Andrew Romanoff for throwing mud at John Hickenlooper — just like the false Republican attacks," the narrator in Hickenlooper's ad says.
Asked whether Polis was OK with his admonition showing up in an ad attacking Romanoff, the Polis campaign provided the following statement:
"Governor Polis believes the best way to win this race is for Democrats to build a broad, unified and diverse coalition. Negative ads attacking fellow Democrats are at odds with that goal. This advice applies to Andrew Romanoff, John Hickenlooper, and the outside groups that have gotten involved in the race.”
Two years earlier — almost to the day — it was Hickenlooper, nearing the end of his second term as governor, calling on Polis and his zealous supporters to cool it with the attack ads.
The 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary featured four candidates, but the main event was a slugfest between Polis, then a five-term congressman from Boulder, and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy.
A few days after ballots went out, a group called Teachers for Kennedy tore into Polis and a third candidate in the race, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, in an ad they said drew contrasts in the Democrats' records on education but that Polis and Johnson blasted as a distortion of their positions. They called on Kennedy to denounce the ad and urge her supporters to stop airing it, but she refused, saying she was forbidden from weighing in on an independent expenditure.
That's when Hickenlooper first stepped in, saying he was "really disappointed" the primary had turned negative and wondering if Kennedy had damaged her chances.
Before you could say lickety-split, Polis and his allies — a big-money PAC called Bold Colorado headed by former state Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio — were firing back at Kennedy.
The Polis campaign argued that it wasn't airing a negative ad, since it was merely rebutting the ad supporting Kennedy, but anyone not in Polis' corner probably concluded otherwise.
His ad depicted teachers praising his education record while reprimanding Kennedy with the kind of disappointment only teachers can convey, saying they were "very disappointed by Cary Kennedy’s false attacks" and concluding: “Cary said she would run a clean campaign. She broke her word. What else will she break?”
Palacio's PAC swung harder, accusing Kennedy of "breaking her pledge" and concluding with a sneering, “Cary Kennedy. A shameful negative campaign, broken pledge, a typical politician.”
Both ads referenced Hickenlooper's remarks, though the Bold Colorado ad went furthest, splattering a photo of Polis' chief rival with mud while saying Hickenlooper had "denounced Kennedy for turning the campaign into a mudfest."
“I will say, seeing my face included in a negative ad after I had pretty clearly stated what I thought about it, I thought that was hitting below the belt,” a visibly angry Hickenlooper said.
While he reserved the bulk of his ire for the PAC ad, he made clear he also took a dim view of Polis' ad.
"I’ve expressed to Jared Polis my disappointment that, A., I don’t think that counterattack is beneficial," Hickenlooper said. "I don’t think it helps him. I don’t think it helps his campaign. There’s an independent expenditure group that’s doing that, but part of that’s his own money as well, that he’s doing directly.”
In a sign that Democrats patch things up after even the most bruising primaries — the enduring Bennet-Romanoff rift notwithstanding — after winning the primary and then winning the governorship, one of the first appointments Polis made for his new administration was Kennedy, his senior advisor for fiscal policy.
And about six months after decrying the ads run by Polis and the PAC that backed him, Hickenlooper tapped Palacio to sit on the board of the leadership PAC he formed ahead of his presidential campaign.