Big money still pouring into Denver mayor’s race amid low turnout

Pro-Mike Johnston group drops another $520,000 on ads in week before Election Day

By: - April 3, 2023 3:45 am

A mobile polling location at the Emily Griffith Technical College in downtown Denver on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Denver’s first wide-open mayoral election in more than a decade has attracted plenty of interest from political insiders and wealthy donors, but voter participation could be poised to drop off sharply from four years ago.

Just 13.2% of ballots had been returned as of four days prior to the city’s April 4 municipal election, the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office said over the weekend. That’s down from 18.1% at the same point in the 2019 election.

Denver voters can still return their ballots though one of the city’s 43 ballot drop boxes or vote in person at one of 10 voting centers, which are listed on the clerk’s website.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

The low turnout so far in a mayor’s race that features no fewer than 16 candidates has prompted calls for a switch to ranked-choice voting in future municipal contests, as well as for bringing the city’s calendar in line with statewide and federal elections. So-called off-year or off-cycle elections typically result in far lower voter turnout rates.

No candidate for mayor is expected to receive more than 50% support on Tuesday, meaning the top two vote-getters will proceed to a head-to-head runoff election scheduled for June 6.

With few of Denver’s 456,000 registered voters evidently tuned in so far, special interests and deep-pocketed donors have made their mark on the race. More than half of the $2.6 million in individual contributions to mayoral campaigns through March 29 came from donors giving the maximum of $500, according to Denver Elections Division data.

Many of those contributions have come from well-known corporate lobbyists and power brokers in city politics, who frequently back multiple candidates at once. Norm Brownstein, a co-founder of Denver-based lobbying giant Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, has contributed the $500 maximum to five candidates, while Roger Sherman, a lobbyist with CRL Associates, has backed eight different contenders.

Top-dollar fundraising has helped two candidates — longtime Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce head Kelly Brough and former state Sen. Mike Johnston — separate themselves from the crowded field of candidates.

Both reported raising just over $670,000 from individual donors through March 29. Two-thirds of Brough’s total came from donors giving the maximum, while just 2% came from donors giving less than $50.

Both Brough and Johnston are benefiting from significant support from independent expenditure committees, commonly known as super PACs, which are barred from coordinating directly with candidates but can raise and spend unlimited sums of money from wealthy donors, corporations and other sources.

A super PAC supporting Johnston, Advancing Denver, has received more than $2.2 million in contributions from a list of donors topped by billionaires Reid Hoffman and Steve Mandel, neither of whom reside in Colorado. The group has also received $300,000 from Kent Thiry, the former CEO of Denver-based dialysis company DaVita and a frequent benefactor to centrist political causes in Colorado.

In the final week leading up to Election Day, the pro-Johnston group reported spending another $520,000 on TV and digital advertising and direct mail — a sum greater that the direct fundraising totals reported by every other mayoral candidate except for Brough.

The city’s new Fair Elections Fund has also distributed more than $3.5 million to 13 different mayoral candidates. Established by city voters through a 2018 ballot measure, the fund provides a 9-to-1 match of contributions up to $50 for candidates who agree to the $500 contribution limit and to only receive donations from individuals and small-donor committees.

Denver voters must return their ballots or vote in-person by 7 p.m. on Tuesday, but city elections officials are urging residents not to wait until the last minute.

Preliminary election results will begin to be reported soon after polls close and updated at 90-minute intervals until late Tuesday night. But Clerk and Recorder Paul Lopez warned that a late turnout surge could mean delays in ballot counting — a development that could keep the 16-way mayoral contest undecided well beyond election night.

“Our word for the wise: if you wait, you wait,” Lopez said in a press release. “We want a high turnout and participation, but if you wait to cast your ballot until Tuesday, you’ll be waiting past Tuesday night for results.”

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

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

MORE FROM AUTHOR