Spending on legislative races spells trouble for Colorado Republicans

GOP playing defense as Democrats look to expand Senate majority

Colorado Senate
People wait outside of the state Senate chamber of the Colorado Capitol on June 11, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Newsline)

As millions of dollars in campaign contributions from large corporations and “dark money” nonprofits pour into Colorado’s legislative elections, spending figures show that Democrats are well-positioned to defend, and potentially expand, their crucial majority in the state Senate in 2021.

Disclosure reports filed with the Colorado secretary of state’s office show that deep-pocketed conservative super PACs are on the defensive, targeting nearly all of their spending on behalf of Republican incumbents in an effort to block Democrats from flipping more seats in the Colorado General Assembly’s upper chamber.

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Democratic-aligned super PACs, meanwhile, have outraised their GOP counterparts and are spending aggressively on several Senate pickup opportunities, hoping to consolidate their hold over key districts in Denver’s suburbs, part of a national trend towards greater support for Democrats among relatively affluent suburban voters.

Republicans sense opportunity in several races for seats in the Colorado House of Representatives, where they’re targeting Democratic incumbents who narrowly won election to the lower chamber in 2018. But liberal super PACs are outspending GOP groups in all but one of these races, and with Democrats enjoying a lopsided 41-24 majority in the House, it’s the Senate contests that are much more likely to impact next year’s legislative session.

Two years ago, Colorado Democrats, powered by a nationwide “blue wave,” retook the state Senate for the first time in four years, clearing the way for the passage of a wide variety of liberal policy reforms on health care, oil and gas, criminal justice and more — though other campaign promises, like the creation of a public option for health insurance or universal paid family leave, have yet to be fulfilled. 

With Democrats holding a commanding majority in the House, the Senate — where a bloc of business-friendly Democratic moderates has often held sway — has become a pivotal battleground in state policymaking.

Outside spending dominates in swing districts

As in previous election cycles, the vast majority of spending on key Colorado legislative races is being funneled through partisan super PACs, formally named “independent expenditure committees.”

While candidates for state office are generally prohibited from accepting contributions in excess of $200 from individuals and other entities, state-level super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from a wide variety of sources, including corporations and 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which are not required to disclose their donors. Super PACs can campaign on behalf of individual candidates, but are barred from coordinating directly with them.

In Colorado’s most expensive 2020 state Senate race, the 25th District contest in Adams County between GOP Sen. Kevin Priola and Democratic challenger Paula Dickerson, super PACs have shelled out more than 10 times the amount that candidates have spent through their own campaign committees.

Priola has been the beneficiary of the vast majority of the GOP’s general-election super PAC spending, enjoying at least $764,215 in outside support through Oct. 20, according to disclosures. The bulk of that figure — nearly half a million dollars — came from Unite for Colorado Action, which is funded entirely by dark-money nonprofit Unite for Colorado.

Dickerson, too, has benefited from a super PAC funded by dark-money groups; Leading Colorado Forward, Democrats’ Senate fundraising arm, has collected millions from 501(c)(4) nonprofits like the Sixteen Thirty Fund and America Votes. The group has spent $263,218 on behalf of Dickerson so far.

Priola, a veteran lawmaker who has earned a reputation as the Senate’s most moderate Republican, has also received support from several pro-business super PACs that have contributed to candidates from both parties, including American Energy Action, a 501(c)(4) renewable-energy group, and Assuring Quality Healthcare Access for Colorado, a committee that shares an address with medical-liability insurer COPIC.

While Priola has maintained a significant spending advantage in the 25th District race, Democrats are outspending their opponents on two other Republican-held seats, the Western Slope’s Senate District 8 and southern Arapahoe County’s Senate District 27.

In the 8th District, incumbent Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, is facing a challenge from Democratic attorney Karl Hanlon. Super PACs from both sides have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the race so far, led by Leading Colorado Forward, which has made its largest outlay of the 2020 cycle — more than $400,000 — to flip a seat that former Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner won with a 55% majority in 2016.

Meanwhile, Suzanne Staiert, a longtime Republican operative hoping to hold outgoing GOP Sen. Jack Tate’s 27th District seat, is facing the most significant spending disadvantage of all. While liberal groups have spent more than $300,000 opposing Staiert and backing her Democratic opponent, financial planner Chris Kolker, Republican-aligned groups have so far spent just shy of $24,000 on the race.

Democrats also look poised to maintain their hold on two other relatively competitive Senate seats, with neither Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada nor Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village attracting significant opposition spending from conservative super PACs in Senate districts 19 and 26, respectively.

Other Senate races drawing modest amounts of outside spending include the 35th District in the San Luis Valley, a seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Larry Crowder, and the 23rd District, where Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer is favored to replace departing Republican Sen. Vicki Marble.