Dark money, corporate cash fuel battle for Colorado legislature

Both parties rely heavily on state super PACs exempt from contribution limits

By: - October 21, 2020 6:05 am

(Getty Images)

Control of the Colorado State Senate is once again up for grabs in the 2020 election, and although most analysts favor Democrats to maintain their slight majority in the upper chamber, voters will ultimately determine the balance of power in the statehouse in a handful of key races next month.

But whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: Whoever controls the Colorado General Assembly in 2021 will have relied on the support of big corporations and opaque, deep-pocketed national political groups to get there.


Roughly two-thirds of the funds raised by the four primary political organizations supporting Democratic and Republican legislative candidates have come from corporations, federal political action committees and 501(c)(4) nonprofits — “dark money” groups that are not required to disclose their donors — according to a Newsline analysis of campaign finance disclosures.

Through these groups and others, millions of dollars in dark money and corporate cash will be spent by both parties before Election Day as voters decide the fate of the state Senate, as well as whether to shrink or expand Democrats’ sizable House majority.

Under Colorado law, candidates for the state legislature are subject to strict campaign contribution limits, including maximum donations of $400 from individuals and federal PACs and a ban on donations from corporations and unions. But through state-level groups like so-called 527 organizations and independent expenditure committees — commonly known as “super PACs” — both parties are able to funnel unlimited contributions from a wide variety of donors into decisive legislative races, though they’re prohibited from coordinating with candidates directly.

In the 2020 election cycle, the committees Leading Colorado Forward and Better Colorado Alliance have raised funds for Democratic Senate candidates and Democratic House candidates, respectively, while the Senate Majority Fund and Values First Colorado have done the same on the Republican side.

Just like its predecessor did in 2018, Senate Democrats’ fundraising arm has led the pack, raising more than $5.8 million in its effort to defend, and potentially expand, the party’s crucial three-seat majority in the upper chamber. Once again, Democratic Senate hopefuls are benefiting from major contributions from liberal dark-money groups like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, Education Reform Now Advocacy and America Votes, which have combined to contribute more than $1.5 million to Leading Colorado Forward in the 2020 cycle.

In the context of state legislative races, the spending power that these super PACs can wield is considerable. In one recent expenditure, Leading Colorado Forward paid for $238,820 in TV advertising against Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, according to the group’s disclosures. That’s nearly triple what Rankin’s Democratic challenger, attorney Karl Hanlon, has reported raising throughout his entire campaign.

While the Senate Majority Fund and Values First Colorado haven’t themselves relied on dark money, a separate conservative group, Unite for Colorado Action, has received $1.5 million from dark-money nonprofit Unite for Colorado, spending much of it to support Republicans and oppose Democrats in key Senate races. The Ready Colorado Action Fund, a super PAC funded almost entirely by the conservative 501(c)(4) Ready Colorado, has similarly spent on behalf of GOP House candidates.

In all, outside groups have made nearly $4.5 million in independent expenditures on behalf of Colorado candidates since July 1.

In all, outside groups have made nearly $4.5 million in independent expenditures on behalf of Colorado candidates since July 1, according to records from the Colorado secretary of state’s office, and have millions more to spend in the weeks before Election Day.

After years of steady growth, however, super PAC spending on Colorado legislative races is on pace to decline slightly in 2020. The combined $7.5 million raised through Oct. 4 by the Senate Majority Fund and Leading Colorado Forward falls short of the $9.8 million that their counterparts had raised by the same date two years ago, when Democrats retook the Senate for the first time in four years amid a nationwide “blue wave.”

But while the focus of many national political groups’ efforts may be elsewhere in 2020, both parties have been able to count on a reliable source of campaign funds: high-dollar contributions from many of the largest corporations in Colorado and the United States as a whole. More than half of the funds raised by Republicans’ legislative super PACs in the 2020 cycle have come from businesses and corporations, and Democrats, too, have benefited from millions in corporate cash.

Dozens of corporate donors made large contributions to both parties’ super PACs in 2020, led by UnitedHealth Group, Colorado’s largest health insurer, which shelled out at least $108,000 to Democratic groups and another $60,000 to Republicans. Other companies doubling up on their donations include the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, a drugmaker trade group; tobacco giant Altria, which worked closely with lawmakers to refer a controversial tobacco-tax measure to the 2020 ballot; and CoreCivic, a private-prison firm.

And despite a bitter dispute over oil and gas legislation passed by Democratic lawmakers in 2019, Colorado’s fossil-fuel industry has continued to donate generously to groups on both sides of the aisle. Over the last two years, oil and gas companies have matched the $255,450 they’ve given to Republican super PACs with at least $275,250 in contributions to Democratic groups, according to disclosures.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to accurately state the maximum campaign contributions that can be made to state legislative candidates.

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.