Andrew Romanoff couldn't have been happier.
As the former state House speaker and U.S. Senate candidate greeted Democrats arriving on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder for the Boulder County Democratic Party's annual Truman Dinner on Sept. 21, he was keeping an eye out for a truck bearing a brightly lit mobile billboard.
"There it goes," Romanoff said with a broad grin, nodding toward the snazzy-looking truck and its attention-grabbing digital sign.
"Andrew & AOC One and the Same!" the sign read alongside smiling photos of Romanoff and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive first-term firebrand from the Bronx widely known by her initials, who was headlining the Democrats' fundraiser that night.
On the back of the sign above the tailgate, visible as the truck idled at a stoplight before it would head down Broadway and repeat its circuit, the billboard made its case, listing "AOC & Andrew's Agenda" — "Medicare for all, Green New Deal, stricter gun control."
According to GTG Marketing, the Denver-based marketing company that provided the mobile billboard — "SIMPLY PUT, WE DRIVE ELECTRIFYING ADS TO CAPTIVATE YOUR AUDIENCE, ATTRACTING ATTENTION TO YOUR BRAND, BUSINESS, OR EVENT," its website shouts — it costs $149.95 an hour to hire the truck to drive around for four hours, delivering an impactful message with GPS accuracy.
"Your ads cannot be turned down or turned off, and when prepared correctly, turned away from," GTG's website declares.
The Democrats streaming in to the University Memorial Center got the message, and, from the looks of things, the national Republican group behind the mobile billboard got its money's worth.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee was also paying for a Facebook ad that was only showing up in the vicinity of the Boulder Democrats' fundraiser, featuring a video that alternated clips of Romanoff and AOC making points about the single-payer Medicare for all and the massive Green New Deal, legislation sponsored by Ocasio-Cortez to reconfigure the U.S. economy to combat climate change.
Throughout the day, Romanoff, one of nine Democrats running for the Colorado Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner, had been linking to the online video and a Colorado Politics story that described the NRSC's targeted ad campaign.
"All this attention is very flattering — and good for the economy," Romanoff tweeted, along with a snapshot of the mobile billboard, as the crowds gathered for the Boulder fundraiser. "We haven’t even won yet & we’re already creating jobs: sign makers, truck drivers, surveillance operators ... Not exactly the kind of jobs we had in mind, but at least the (NRSC) & (AmericaRising) are footing the bill," he added, referring to a Republican-aligned group that hires trackers to videotape Democratic candidates.
Republicans appeared to be thrilled, thanking Romanoff on Twitter for embracing and amplifying the message they'd probably spent a couple thousand dollars on — pocket change in a race that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate and is estimated will cost both sides upwards of $100 million.
A spokeswoman for the NRSC told Trail Mix that the brief advertising campaign was intended as an attack on Romanoff's "radical far-left agenda," though it's certainly more complicated than that.
Comparing Romanoff to the self-described "democratic socialist" AOC — who brought the nearly 900 Democratic donors to their feet several times during a fiery 20-minute speech inside the ballroom — could only be seen as a boost to his campaign for the nomination, at least among the primary voters and potential volunteers the mobile billboard and Facebook ad reached that night in Boulder.
And Romanoff can use that boost, particularly in the last month, since former Gov. John Hickenlooper dropped his presidential campaign and jumped in the Senate primary, forcing three other leading candidates from the field — former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh and former Obama-era ambassador Dan Baer, all of whom out-raised Romanoff in the last fundraising quarter.
The scant publicly available polling in the Senate primary shows Romanoff among the leading candidates, though Hickenlooper — who served two terms as Denver mayor and two terms as governor, leaving him with sky-high name identification and approval ratings across the board among Colorado Democrats — leaves him in the dust at this point, with the support of more than six times as many likely primary voters, according to one poll commissioned by Hickenlooper backers.
The short-lived ad campaign on the CU campus isn't the first time the NRSC has dropped some cash to bring attention to a Colorado Senate candidate's affinity with AOC, who has drawn sustained attacks from President Donald Trump and is among the most prominent targets of Republicans ahead of the 2020 election.
Earlier this summer, the NRSC put up a billboard for a week in suburban Arapahoe County declaring that one of Romanoff and Hickenlooper's primary rivals is "too liberal for Colorado," depicting former congressional candidate Stephany Rose Spaulding next to AOC and her fellow conservative bogeywoman U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
The NRSC is trying to do two things — brand the Democrats as harebrained liberals ready to drive the country off a cliff toward full-blown socialism, echoing one of Gardner's most consistent lines of attack, while also bringing attention to the party's more left-leaning candidates, who might not do as well statewide as the more centrist and better-known Hickenlooper.
The latter approach was perfected by the Democrats in a 2012 Missouri Senate race, when incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill spent $1.7 million attacking the most extreme-right Republican among her challengers, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, branding him as "too conservative" for the state.
Republican primary voters ate it up, vaulting the previously obscure back-bencher to the nomination and an eventual loss in the general election to Democrat McCaskill after it turned out the ads funded by her campaign had been accurate.
Known in some circles as McCaskilling, the tactic has worked a few times since, though it's also backfired.
In Colorado, liberal groups tried something similar in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary, calling former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo "too conservative for Colorado" in an attempt to push the right-wing firebrand across the finish line. But former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, his chief primary rival, swung back at what he termed "dishonest, negative attacks and underhanded tactics," and eked out a win in the four-way primary, though he went on to lose the general election to Hickenlooper.
Although they don't take credit for the outcome, the liberal ProgressNow Colorado had more success in 2016 helping push Republican U.S. Senate candidate Darryl Glenn to victory in a five-way race with a flier that landed in likely GOP primary voters' mailboxes just as mail ballots were arriving.
The flier was sent out under the name of the Keep Colorado Great Project, a committee ProgressNow Colorado had created for the occasion. It alerted voters that one of the primary candidates used to be a Democrat and that Glenn, who was then an El Paso County commissioner, was the farthest-right of the choices.
“When you present conservative voters with the truth, they’re more likely to support the one that’s more extreme, not the one’s that’s more moderate,” Ian Silverii, ProgressNow Colorado's director, later told Colorado Politics.
Glenn went on to lose the Senate race to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
By all appearances, after being on the receiving end of it more than once, the NRSC could be attempting some McCaskilling of its own this time.