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WASHINGTON -- Candidates who raise more campaign cash than their opponents usually win elections, but that is not guaranteed in this year's Colorado Senate race.

Although Democratic incumbent Mark Udall holds a commanding fundraising lead over GOP frontrunner Cory Gardner, the Yuma congressman would benefit from the millions that independent groups like Americans for Prosperity are prepared to spend to help Republicans win back the Senate.

AFP has spent almost $1 million on broadcast and online ads in March and April bashing Udall -- a freshman who won his first Senate race in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote -- for supporting the Affordable Care Act.

AFP and other GOP-backing independent groups could make up for Gardner's fundraising disadvantage if they remain involved in the race, said Kyle Saunders, a Colorado State University political scientist.

"The disparity between what Udall has raised and what Gardner has raised and what Udall has on hand and what Gardner has on hand matters, but it doesn't matter nearly as much in this environment, where you can have these outside groups compensate for that gap and maybe even overcome it," Saunders said Thursday.

The latest Federal Election Commission data show Udall raised $2.06 million in the Jan. 1-March 31 quarter and had $5.9 million in cash going into April.

Gardner, who's favored to beat tea party-backed state Sen. Owen Hill in the GOP primary, raised $1.4 million in the first quarter and had $2.1 million in cash on March 31. Since announcing his Senate candidacy on March 1, Gardner's fundraising numbers have taken off. FEC records show he had $900,000 on Dec. 31, when he was seeking re-election to his House seat.

Gardner's entry transformed the Senate contest from "sleepy to competitive," according to the independent Cook Political Report, which gives Udall a slight edge despite the national attention the Colorado Senate contest is attracting.

Democratic incumbents from "swing" or Republican-majority states are playing defense due to public dissatisfaction with the Affordable Care Act's rollout and President Barack Obama's low popularity numbers.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said outside groups are taking to the airwaves early to get a jump-start on portraying their candidate as the right fit for Colorado and the opponent as ill- suited. That high-priced effort will last until the fall elections, he predicted.

AFP put up the ads first. The Senate Majority PAC responded with ads bashing the AFP ads as disingenuous and portraying Gardner as a corporate shill. On Thursday, the League of Conservation Voters announced it has bought $1 million worth of ads that will paint Gardner as a friend of Big Oil.

"I don't expect the race to be decided by money," Rothenberg said. "I expect it to be decided by who wins the definitional battle."

Udall was considered a safe bet to win re-election when ultraconservative Republican Ken Buck -- who lost to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010 -- was the GOP's leading challenger. Buck stepped down to run for Gardner's seat after Gardner entered the race.

The GOP needs to pick up six seats to regain the Senate majority.

Polls show Udall and Gardner are essentially tied, although Gardner lacks Udall's statewide name recognition.

Udall may not be as vulnerable as a few Democratic senators running in "red" states. One example: Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, where voters chose GOP challenger Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012.

In contrast, Obama won 53 percent of the vote in Colorado, which had 1.11 million registered Republicans, 1.09 million Democrats and 1.29 million independents in March, according to the Colorado secretary of state.

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