As far as campaign scandals go, it was a snoozer.
Even in the year's most closely watched Colorado contest, it barely broke the surface, with only the most avid — or obsessive — political scholars taking note.
It had all the makings of the kind of lucky bump in the trail that the opposition wishes for — an unforced error that knocks a campaign off its stride, if only for a day or so, giving opponents a chance to pile on, secure in their knowledge that their candidate would never encounter such a blunder.
But that isn't how it played out.
Soon after U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner released his campaign's first TV ad on May 15, alert viewers spotted something unusual.
The 30-second spot, scheduled to run statewide for two weeks, touted the Republican's efforts to secure protective equipment and testing kits for Colorado during the coronavirus pandemic, with particular attention to the relationships Gardner has developed with the leaders of Asian countries while chairing a key Senate subcommittee.
It's only the beginning of what promises to be a TV ad onslaught awaiting Colorado viewers as Gardner's reelection bid shifts into gear. Over the next month, Democrats John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff will be duking it out in a primary, and then in July the main event will start, as tens of millions of dollars pour into Colorado to sway what could be the race that determines which party controls the U.S. Senate after the election.
In the ad, amid brief excerpts of news reports describing Gardner's successes — none on screen for more than a second or two — a familiar logo pops up, while Gardner is delivering the ad's thematic closing lines.
"We are going to get through this. We will get through this together," Gardner says, as the iconic red oval-encased symbol of the local branch of AAA — the American Automobile Association — appears over his shoulder for about 1 second, part of the news station's B-roll to illustrate the toll the pandemic has taken.
Soon, an executive with AAA Colorado got in touch with the Gardner campaign and politely asked that the logo be removed from the ad, since the 118-year-old organization steadfastly avoids getting involved with anything political.
Fair enough, the Gardner folks responded, and within a day or so a new version of the ad had been shipped out to all the stations and online outfits that were running the ad, and the AAA executive thanked the campaign for addressing its concern.
What's unusual is what happened next, after a story about the tweak posted to Colorado Politics. A handful of Gardner's critics shared the news, possibly provoking derisive chuckles from like-minded fellow Gardner bashers. And that was about it.
A veteran Democratic campaign consultant told Trail Mix that the whole episode had probably worked out to Gardner's benefit, as his campaign was credited for handling a pesky concern quickly.
It isn't the first time a Colorado candidate has had to retool an ad, though it could be the least consequential.
In other recent instances, the opposition has made hay, the mockery and derision crackling through the blogosphere and across social media.
Last cycle, campaign organizations revised two ads that drew complaints on more serious fronts.
In one instance, the Giffords anti-gun violence group changed an ad attacking Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman over his stance on gun control after the family of 16-year-old Emily Keyes, the victim of a 2006 school shooting in Bailey, asked that the ad be pulled because passages echoed her story.
In the other, a shadowy group attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis changed an ad after TV stations decided to stop airing it, following a complaint by the Polis campaign that its allegations were wildly off the mark.
Other recent ad stumbles have involved violating the cardinal rule of Colorado politics: Make sure those are Colorado mountains in your campaign material.
Since the turn of the century — possibly coinciding with the rise of online graphics libraries — Colorado candidates have spurned the edict at their peril.
Back in 2016, then-state Sen. Laura Woods, an Arvada Republican in the most competitive legislative race that cycle, had to recall brochures that featured her smiling face in front of a stunning mountain range — in Canada’s Banff National Park.
Two years earlier, the DVD cover of "Rocky Mountain Heist," a documentary produced by Citizens United — yes, that Citizens United — about the Colorado Democrats' successes in Colorado featured a photo of the same Canadian scene.
But the mother of all Colorado campaign commercial flubs took place 12 years and a day before Gardner's coronavirus ad was released.
"Colorado is my life. I proposed to Maureen on top of Pikes Peak," said Bob Schaffer, the 2008 Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, as an iconic shot of Alaska's Denali floated into view behind him in his campaign's first TV ad.
Denali is many things — the highest peak in North America, it used to go by Mount McKinley, after a prospector named it in 1896 after presidential nominee William McKinley because he supported the gold standard, back when that question sharply divided Americans. But it isn't in Colorado, and it really isn't a good stand-in for Pikes Peak.
"This place needs some Colorado common sense," Schaffer, who hailed from Ohio before representing Colorado's 4th Congressional District, said at the end of the ad.
Within hours, the ad was yanked from the air and edited to include actual footage of Pikes Peak. Schaffer's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, blamed the error on Washington, D.C., media consultants and called the episode "frustrating."
Democrats and their allies pounced.
“That Schaffer would claim 'Colorado common sense' when he doesn’t know the difference between Pikes Peak and Denali in Alaska shows he’s a fool,” said Michael Huttner, executive director of ProgressNowAction, who went on to call for Schaffer to pull the ad and "stop misleading the public over his lack of knowledge of Colorado.”
Amid the hoots and guffaws — Schaffer's goof earned headlines in the Gazette, the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, the Grand Junction Sentinel and the Associated Press — former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican preparing to run for governor in the next cycle, tutt-tutted.
What do they say goeth before the fall?
Asked to comment on Schaffer's unfortunate ad mishap, McInnis couldn't help himself.
“They can afford this one, but one or two more and that’s all you can absorb,” he told the Grand Junction Sentinel.
It's almost like he knew what was coming.
Just over a year later, it was McInnis scrambling to replace a photo of the Canadian Rockies on his own material.
Within hours of launching his long-awaited gubernatorial campaign website, bloggers figured out that the site's lovely backdrop was Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada.
Before long, the McInnis campaign had replaced the scenic vista with an equally lovely shot of the Boulder Flatirons.