The super PACs and wealthy donors shaping Colorado’s U.S. Senate race

$46 million spent on Bennet-O’Dea contest is half of 2020’s Gardner-Hickenlooper total

By: - November 1, 2022 4:05 am

(Getty Images)

Despite a late surge in campaign spending, especially by Democratic-affiliated groups, Colorado’s 2022 U.S. Senate race is still on track to fall far short of the fundraising and expenditure records set two years ago.

As of Oct. 19, a total of just under $46 million had been spent by the campaigns of incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and his Republican challenger Joe O’Dea, along with their super PAC allies. That’s about half of the $89 million spent at the same point in 2020 during the blockbuster contest between former GOP Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper, who went on to win with 53.5% of the vote to Gardner’s 44.2%.

The decline is a sign of Colorado’s increasingly Democratic electorate, and the long odds facing O’Dea supporters who hope to propel the first-time candidate to an upset victory next week. In his bid to win a third full term in the Senate, Bennet has led in recent polls by an average of more than 10 points, according to elections analysis website FiveThirtyEight.

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The incumbent Democrat has also maintained a strong fundraising advantage throughout the race, Federal Election Commission disclosures show. Bennet’s campaign committee reported raising more than $5.3 million since July 1, double the figure that the O’Dea campaign reported.

O’Dea, the CEO of a Denver civil construction firm, supplemented his haul with a $1 million personal loan to his campaign in the third quarter, FEC records show.

Bennet's financial advantage has been further bolstered by support from deep-pocketed national Democratic groups. On top of the $19 million spent by Bennet's campaign through Oct. 19, Democratic-leaning super PACs had reported more than $14 million in independent expenditures in support of Bennet or in opposition to O'Dea.

Topping the list of pro-Bennet super PACs is the LCV Victory Fund, an arm of the League of Conservation Voters. In the 2022 election cycle, the fund has received large donations from a network of environmental organizations as well as wealthy liberal donors like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, according to FEC data.

Over the last six weeks, LCV Victory Fund has spent more than $7.2 million on TV and digital ads and mailers in support of Bennet's reelection. A recent ad from the group highlight's Bennet's efforts to protect Camp Hale and other public lands and accuses O'Dea of plotting to "open up Colorado public lands to the oil and gas industry."

Other super PACs supporting Bennet include gun-control advocacy groups like Giffords PAC and Everytown for Gun Safety, as well as 53 Peaks, a newly registered group that FEC records show is wholly funded by Democratic "dark money" nonprofit Majority Forward.

While O'Dea's candidacy has attracted significantly less support from national groups, he was the beneficiary of the single largest contribution made in the race to date, a $4 million donation from Wyoming banking heir Timothy Mellon. That contribution has helped pro-O'Dea super PAC American Policy Fund spend more than $6.8 million in support of the Republican since Sept. 19. American Policy Fund also received a $1.25 million transfer on Oct. 7 from the Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC linked to GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

One week out from Election Day, however, there are few signs that national Republican groups view Colorado's race as competitive. Another super PAC, Our American Century, entered the race last month with the announcement of $500,000 in TV ads attacking Bennet, but withdrew nearly half that total as of Oct. 15, according to the group's latest FEC filing. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has spent tens of millions of dollars to influence several of 2022's top Senate races, has remained on the sidelines in Colorado, spending just $250,000 in support of O'Dea in a July transaction that has come under scrutiny by campaign-finance watchdogs.

The fundraising hauls reported by the O'Dea and Bennet campaigns differ widely in their sources of individual contributions.

Just 15% of outside contributions to O'Dea have come from donors giving less than $1,000, far lower than Bennet's percentage, while O'Dea boasts a much higher proportion of Colorado-based donors. He has received maximum $5,800 contributions from influential Colorado GOP figures like Phil Anschutz, Pete and Marilyn Coors, Kaye Monfort, and Terry and Elizabeth Considine.

Meanwhile, Bennet's fundraising haul has been fueled by a larger percentage of small-dollar donors, as well as a network of national donors both big and small. More than a third of Bennet's contributions have come from donors giving less than $1,000, while about 60% of his itemized individual donations have come from out of state.

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

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

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