John Elway’s donations to Gardner campaign exceeded limits

FEC flags payment from the Broncos Hall of Famer

John Elway, general manager of the Denver Broncos, on the sidelines before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Oct. 27, 2019, in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Campaign finance false start: $2,500 penalty.

To mark the start of the NFL season, the campaign finance referees blew the whistle on legendary quarterback John Elway for being a little too eager with his donations.

Well, not Elway per se. 

The Federal Election Commission flagged the campaign of Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, ordering the organization to return the money to Elway because he has already given the maximum amount a political donor can shell out to a campaign committee in an election cycle.

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The Hall of Famer donated the $2,500 early on, in September 2019, during a fundraising quarter in which Gardner outraised his opponent for the Senate, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, $2.45 million to $2.1 million. The problem is Elway donated two more times the next year, giving $2,800 in both April and May 2020, according to FEC records.

A donor can only give $2,800 for a primary election and another $2,800 for a general election. So the FEC sent a letter to Gardner’s campaign in August noting they’d have to give back the cash to the former Denver Broncos gunslinger. 

“If you have not already done so, please inform the Commission of your corrective action immediately in writing and provide a photocopy of any refund checks,” an FEC analyst wrote to the campaign, noting Elway among 13 pages of names of donors who gave too much.

Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before the arrival of President Donald Trump at a Keep America Great rally on Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

The Gardner campaign got the message. On Friday the campaign fired back a letter to the FEC noting they’d returned the original $2,500 donation Elway had made to Gardner’s primary campaign (opting, of course, to hold on to the larger $2,800 give).

What’s more, the next time Elway jumped the line, the campaign was prepared. Elway tried to donate another $2,800 to Gardner’s primary campaign in June, but the campaign returned it the same day. All of the donations except the first were made through WinRed, the GOP’s answer to ActBlue, a donation platform that easily allows individuals to donate to candidates.

Gardner’s campaign spokesman did not return a request for comment.

The FEC routinely asks candidates to return donations, because many citizens don’t know the fundraising limits or fall behind on keeping track of how much they’ve donated in a given election cycle. It’s somewhat rare to find a big name like Elway among those mentioned.

Elway, who has been the Broncos’ general manager and executive vice president of football operations since 2011, has long been a fan of Gardner, donating $2,500 to the candidate’s 2014 campaign and another $5,000 that year to Gardner’s leadership PAC (the limits are higher for those kinds of fundraising committees).

Elway has also donated tens of thousands of dollars to GOP candidates and PACs going back to at least 2012, including then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado.

He’s hardly the only Bronco to dish out to candidates this year. Joe Ellis, the team’s president and CEO, gave Gardner $1,000 in June. Elway’s one-time teammate, 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee and former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, donated $200 to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Hickenlooper, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to be the recipient of any Bronco donations, according to FEC records.

Gardner and Hickenlooper have raised just about the same amount of money for their official campaign committees for their November matchup, according to FEC records that showed donations as of earlier this summer: Just more than $14 million apiece. 

But Gardner more than doubles Hicknlooper in cash on hand, with $10.6 million in the bank compared to the Democrat’s $4.5 million. That largely owes to the fact that Hickenlooper has spent about twice as much as Gardner on the race.

Hickenlooper has enjoyed a fairly wide polling edge all summer, but a poll released Thursday showed Hickenlooper with his narrowest margin yet at just 5%.

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