Challenger to Republican Senator Gardner Runs Digital Ads Excluding Colorado

Ads blocked to Colorado Facebook users mainly focus on Supreme Court nominees

Cory Gardner
Cory Gardner / Getty Images
• April 5, 2019 5:00 am


A Colorado Democrat hoping to unseat Republican senator Cory Gardner (Colo.) has placed dozens of Facebook ads targeted to run everywhere in the country except in the Centennial State.

Mike Johnston, a former state senator who also had a failed gubernatorial run in 2018, was not the first Democrat to declare against Gardner, elected to the senate in 2014. However, he was the highest-profile name to enter the race when he announced his candidacy in late January.

Of the Johnston Facebook advertisements that exclude Colorado entirely, most are set on national themes, especially the Supreme Court.

"I'm running against a conservative who voted for Gorsuch AND Kavanaugh," one ad reads. "If you want Democrats to flip the Senate and save the Supreme Court, add your name."

"We're looking to hear from Democrats about the Green New Deal," reads another. "Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Let us know how you feel here[.]"

A Washington Free Beacon review of Johnston's Facebook ad buys identified at least two dozen such instances in which Colorado Facebook users were blocked. However, in a small number of cases, some of the ads that excluded Colorado were also duplicated and did run in the state as separate ad buys.

While the advertisements in question have had placement everywhere in the country except Colorado, Facebook data shows the ads have had higher visibility usually in states like Texas, California, New York, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio.

The overall strategy appears to closely mirror that of Democrat senator Doug Jones of Alabama, who was elected to the Senate in 2018 in a special election and is on the ballot again campaigning to be reelected to a full term in 2020.

The campaign did not provide comment on the Facebook advertising. Earlier in the week, his team issued a press release announcing the campaign had raised $1.8 million by the end of the first fundraising quarter.

David Flaherty, a long-time Republican pollster in Colorado who runs Magellan Strategies, said this is likely an attempt by the Johnston team to harvest extra energy from Democratic voters and donors who live in states where the senate seats are already safe, regardless of whether safely Republican or Democrat.

"Mike Johnston as a candidate in Colorado is not a rookie anymore, he's not a fresh face from the governor's primary of last year," Flaherty told the Free Beacon by phone.

"One thing I think people remember about Johnston's campaign is his ability to raise out-of-state money. Cheryl Sandberg—you know what I mean? Some really big names have contributed to him presumably because of his school reform efforts.

"Bottom line is there’s real money to be raised through donor networks in Democratic circles across the country. I can understand the issues Mike Johnston is putting out there. They've—I'm sure—been measured and tested in surveys to know."

Nationally, Democrats are especially hopeful the Gardner senate seat can be flipped in 2020.  In the 2018 elections, voters delivered all statewide offices to Democrat candidates, and Colorado went easily for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential vote.

Johnston, 44, is Harvard and Yale educated and served as a state senator representing the Denver area from 2009 to 2016. His 2018 gubernatorial run was largely aided by a PAC funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with the two politicians having an affinity because of similar views on gun control issues. That campaign, however, could not overcome the self-funded candidacy of Jared Polis, who went on to win the Democratic nomination and then the governor’s chair.

Johnston was considered the "highest profile" candidate looking for the Democrat nomination to run against Gardner until former Colorado speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, 52, threw his hat in the ring as well.

A review of the handful of Facebook ads run by the Romanoff team showed messages that were targeted to appear exclusively in Colorado. None were programmed to appear to the rest of the nation with Colorado excluded, as with the Johnston ads.

Published under: Colorado, Cory Gardner