Colorado holds the dubious title of being one of the top states for outside campaign spending this election season.  One report estimates three-quarters of a million dollars is spent here every day.  Last year’s Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate and labor spending unleashed this flood of funds, and Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee looks at the impact of that change on Colorado’s elections.

*This is a corrected version of the introduction.  Originally we stated that Colorado has received the highest amount of of outside spending.  As of October 21st, it is second to Pennsylvania (according to the Sunlight Foundation).

Resources:

Sunlight Foundation's database of federal campaign expenditures

To find all filings from Independent Expenditure Committees in the Secretary of State's database, clink the "documents" link on the left side of the search page, and then search for 'Notice of Independent Expenditures' -- you will need to enter a range of dates, but leave all other fields blank.

________________

Every morning, Nancy Watzman gets up in her Denver house and turns on a half hour of TV news.  She’s not trying to catch up on current events, instead she's actually watching for the commercials.

Watzman: "I hear a lot of ominous music.  Getting a little dizzy from that."

Watzman’s with the Sunlight Foundation, a DC-based nonprofit that’s trying to track all the independent money being spent on the election.  The funds are coming so fast and furious, the federal government’s usual tools for disclosure are having a hard time keeping up.

Watzman: "For example, this morning, I saw a couple of ads, one by  the Chamber of Commerce that was against Betsy Markey and one by the NEA Advocacy Fund, that’s connected to the teacher’s union, against Ken Buck, and neither of those were reported yet."

Those ads are the result of a Supreme Court ruling last January known as Citizens United.  The decision struck down restrictions on how much corporations and unions can spend on political causes.  But you’d be hard pressed to find an ad that says it’s paid for by Exxon Mobile or the AFL-CIO.  Instead they’re giving to a host of new independent expenditure committees -- "independent" because they’re not allowed to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns.

Finding out which donors are behind all those innocuous-sounding groups has become the political whodunnit of the campaign season.  Watzman says Citizens United changed the playing field so much, not even the groups making independent expenditures seem 100% sure what they must disclose to the Federal Election Commission.

Watzman: "A bunch of these I.E. committees are reporting donors in these monthly reports to the FEC.  And then some aren’t.  It’s just, it’s very -- it’s kind of a hodge-podge, basically."

The vast majority of federal independent expenditures are going to help Republican candidates.  In many cases, though, the outside money doesn’t quite amount to a landslide in their favor.  Instead, it’s more tilting the playing field away from Democrats, who already had an advantage in raising money through traditional methods.
University of Denver business professor John Holcomb specializes in campaign finance.  He says it's all part of the election cycle to see so much money going to Republican groups this year; because the party doing best in the polls also tends to attract the most fundraising.

Holcomb:  "If we go back to the previous election of ‘08 and the tremendous business support for Democrats and for the Obama campaign, one of the primary reasons that was happening was because they said, “Hmm, they’re going to win anyway, we might as well hop on board and ride with a winner.” And the same thing is happening on the other side of the ledger this time around."

The massive money in federal races is getting a lot of the attention -- But Colorado also has more than a dozen home-grown independent expenditure committees working to influence state House and Senate races.  For candidates targeted by these groups, new money can equal new stress.  Because independent expenditures can not, by definition, coordinate with campaigns, candidates often only hear through the grapevine who’s trying to help or hurt them.

Representative Frank McNulty is coordinating the Republican effort to take back the state House.  He says he tells his candidates just to ignore outside expenditures.

McNulty: "Some of these mailings or radio ads are very difficult for the candidate to handle.  And the fact that candidates have very little control in state like Colorado over the messaging these soft money groups are bringing to bear is frustrating for the candidates."

McNulty blames campaign finance restrictions for driving donors to soft money options, and for limiting how much candidates can afford to do for themselves.

McNulty:  "With state house and state senate candidates limited to contributions of $400 per person, as a candidate it’s just very difficult to put all of those things into motion, and because of that, these outside groups have come in and picked up the slack."

Both McNulty and his Democratic counterpart, Representative Andy Kerr, say outside money makes their candidates’ ground game that much more important.  The one thing an outside committee can’t ever buy is the impact of a candidate standing on a doorstep, talking with a voter.

That personal touch may be more important than ever, in an election season that has voters like Paul Hoffman of Pueblo ready to cover their ears to block out all the ads and robocalls.

Hoffman: "I’m sick and tired of finding my answering machine full every time I come home.  I have to use the delete button, I’m going to wear it out.  And I’m wearing out the mute button on my remote for the TV.  I’m sick of it all."

Several groups have been watchdog-ing those ads for the federal races, but if voters like Hoffman want to know who is behind an ad for a Colorado state race, the search can get pretty complicated.

A law passed by the General Assembly last spring requires Independent Expenditure Committees to file reports on where they get their money from and how it's spent.  But the Secretary of State's office says there wasn't enough time to build a new section for that information on the state's campaign finance database.  Instead, those releases are filed away as .pdfs in an obscure section of the website.

But even having that much information available -- if you know where to look for it -- puts Colorado at the forefront of disclosure, according to Democratic state senator Morgan Carroll, who co-sponsored last session's bill.

Carroll: "The feds haven’t been able to capture those disclosures yet, they haven’t been able to pass that bill, and the majority of states weren’t able to get those disclosure requirements."

Carroll fully expects people who want to influence campaigns to find the loopholes in whatever disclosure laws she and other lawmakers enact.  But she believes voters may be able to do what campaign finance rules can’t, if they get active and start researching the groups they see advertising in campaigns.

Carroll: "If a lot of these donors and groups knew that it became a cultural norm for the public to be able to follow the money, it might change the tone of the message.  They might feel less emboldened to either make stuff up or to be really horrible."

How well voters will be able to follow the money in future elections may well rest with the very politicians they elect next month.  Lawmakers are the ones who will determine the rules for what committees disclose about the money they get.

I'm Megan Verlee, Colorado Public Radio News

*This is a corrected version of the introduction.  Originally we stated that Colorado has received the highest amount of of outside spending.  As of October 21st, it is second to Pennsylvania (according to the Sunlight Foundation).

Resources:

Sunlight Foundation's database of federal campaign expenditures

To find all filings from Independent Expenditure Committees in the Secretary of State's database, clink the "documents" link on the left side of the search page, and then search for 'Notice of Independent Expenditures' -- you will need to enter a range of dates, but leave all other fields blank.

________________

Every morning, Nancy Watzman gets up in her Denver house and turns on a half hour of TV news.  She’s not trying to catch up on current events, instead she's actually watching for the commercials.

Watzman: "I hear a lot of ominous music.  Getting a little dizzy from that."

Watzman’s with the Sunlight Foundation, a DC-based nonprofit that’s trying to track all the independent money being spent on the election.  The funds are coming so fast and furious, the federal government’s usual tools for disclosure are having a hard time keeping up.

Watzman: "For example, this morning, I saw a couple of ads, one by  the Chamber of Commerce that was against Betsy Markey and one by the NEA Advocacy Fund, that’s connected to the teacher’s union, against Ken Buck, and neither of those were reported yet."

Those ads are the result of a Supreme Court ruling last January known as Citizens United.  The decision struck down restrictions on how much corporations and unions can spend on political causes.  But you’d be hard pressed to find an ad that says it’s paid for by Exxon Mobile or the AFL-CIO.  Instead they’re giving to a host of new independent expenditure committees -- "independent" because they’re not allowed to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns.

Finding out which donors are behind all those innocuous-sounding groups has become the political whodunnit of the campaign season.  Watzman says Citizens United changed the playing field so much, not even the groups making independent expenditures seem 100% sure what they must disclose to the Federal Election Commission.

Watzman: "A bunch of these I.E. committees are reporting donors in these monthly reports to the FEC.  And then some aren’t.  It’s just, it’s very -- it’s kind of a hodge-podge, basically."

The vast majority of federal independent expenditures are going to help Republican candidates.  In many cases, though, the outside money doesn’t quite amount to a landslide in their favor.  Instead, it’s more tilting the playing field away from Democrats, who already had an advantage in raising money through traditional methods.
University of Denver business professor John Holcomb specializes in campaign finance.  He says it's all part of the election cycle to see so much money going to Republican groups this year; because the party doing best in the polls also tends to attract the most fundraising.

Holcomb:  "If we go back to the previous election of ‘08 and the tremendous business support for Democrats and for the Obama campaign, one of the primary reasons that was happening was because they said, “Hmm, they’re going to win anyway, we might as well hop on board and ride with a winner.” And the same thing is happening on the other side of the ledger this time around."

The massive money in federal races is getting a lot of the attention -- But Colorado also has more than a dozen home-grown independent expenditure committees working to influence state House and Senate races.  For candidates targeted by these groups, new money can equal new stress.  Because independent expenditures can not, by definition, coordinate with campaigns, candidates often only hear through the grapevine who’s trying to help or hurt them.

Representative Frank McNulty is coordinating the Republican effort to take back the state House.  He says he tells his candidates just to ignore outside expenditures.

McNulty: "Some of these mailings or radio ads are very difficult for the candidate to handle.  And the fact that candidates have very little control in state like Colorado over the messaging these soft money groups are bringing to bear is frustrating for the candidates."

McNulty blames campaign finance restrictions for driving donors to soft money options, and for limiting how much candidates can afford to do for themselves.

McNulty:  "With state house and state senate candidates limited to contributions of $400 per person, as a candidate it’s just very difficult to put all of those things into motion, and because of that, these outside groups have come in and picked up the slack."

Both McNulty and his Democratic counterpart, Representative Andy Kerr, say outside money makes their candidates’ ground game that much more important.  The one thing an outside committee can’t ever buy is the impact of a candidate standing on a doorstep, talking with a voter.

That personal touch may be more important than ever, in an election season that has voters like Paul Hoffman of Pueblo ready to cover their ears to block out all the ads and robocalls.

Hoffman: "I’m sick and tired of finding my answering machine full every time I come home.  I have to use the delete button, I’m going to wear it out.  And I’m wearing out the mute button on my remote for the TV.  I’m sick of it all."

Several groups have been watchdog-ing those ads for the federal races, but if voters like Hoffman want to know who is behind an ad for a Colorado state race, the search can get pretty complicated.

A law passed by the General Assembly last spring requires Independent Expenditure Committees to file reports on where they get their money from and how it's spent.  But the Secretary of State's office says there wasn't enough time to build a new section for that information on the state's campaign finance database.  Instead, those releases are filed away as .pdfs in an obscure section of the website.

But even having that much information available -- if you know where to look for it -- puts Colorado at the forefront of disclosure, according to Democratic state senator Morgan Carroll, who co-sponsored last session's bill.

Carroll: "The feds haven’t been able to capture those disclosures yet, they haven’t been able to pass that bill, and the majority of states weren’t able to get those disclosure requirements."

Carroll fully expects people who want to influence campaigns to find the loopholes in whatever disclosure laws she and other lawmakers enact.  But she believes voters may be able to do what campaign finance rules can’t, if they get active and start researching the groups they see advertising in campaigns.

Carroll: "If a lot of these donors and groups knew that it became a cultural norm for the public to be able to follow the money, it might change the tone of the message.  They might feel less emboldened to either make stuff up or to be really horrible."

How well voters will be able to follow the money in future elections may well rest with the very politicians they elect next month.  Lawmakers are the ones who will determine the rules for what committees disclose about the money they get.

*This is a corrected version of the introduction.  Originally we stated that Colorado has received the highest amount of of outside spending.  As of October 21st, it is second to Pennsylvania (according to the Sunlight Foundation).


Resources:

 

Sunlight Foundation's database of federal campaign expenditures

 

To find all filings from Independent Expenditure Committees in the Secretary of State's database, clink the "documents" link on the left side of the search page, and then search for 'Notice of Independent Expenditures' -- you will need to enter a range of dates, but leave all other fields blank.

________________

 

Every morning, Nancy Watzman gets up in her Denver house and turns on a half hour of TV news.  She’s not trying to catch up on current events, instead she's actually watching for the commercials.

Watzman: "I hear a lot of ominous music.  Getting a little dizzy from that."

Watzman’s with the Sunlight Foundation, a DC-based nonprofit that’s trying to track all the independent money being spent on the election.  The funds are coming so fast and furious, the federal government’s usual tools for disclosure are having a hard time keeping up.

Watzman: "For example, this morning, I saw a couple of ads, one by  the Chamber of Commerce that was against Betsy Markey and one by the NEA Advocacy Fund, that’s connected to the teacher’s union, against Ken Buck, and neither of those were reported yet."

Those ads are the result of a Supreme Court ruling last January known as Citizens United.  The decision struck down restrictions on how much corporations and unions can spend on political causes.  But you’d be hard pressed to find an ad that says it’s paid for by Exxon Mobile or the AFL-CIO.  Instead they’re giving to a host of new independent expenditure committees -- "independent" because they’re not allowed to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns.

Finding out which donors are behind all those innocuous-sounding groups has become the political whodunnit of the campaign season.  Watzman says Citizens United changed the playing field so much, not even the groups making independent expenditures seem 100% sure what they must disclose to the Federal Election Commission.

Watzman: "A bunch of these I.E. committees are reporting donors in these monthly reports to the FEC.  And then some aren’t.  It’s just, it’s very -- it’s kind of a hodge-podge, basically."

The vast majority of federal independent expenditures are going to help Republican candidates.  In many cases, though, the outside money doesn’t quite amount to a landslide in their favor.  Instead, it’s more tilting the playing field away from Democrats, who already had an advantage in raising money through traditional methods.
University of Denver business professor John Holcomb specializes in campaign finance.  He says it's all part of the election cycle to see so much money going to Republican groups this year; because the party doing best in the polls also tends to attract the most fundraising.

Holcomb:  "If we go back to the previous election of ‘08 and the tremendous business support for Democrats and for the Obama campaign, one of the primary reasons that was happening was because they said, “Hmm, they’re going to win anyway, we might as well hop on board and ride with a winner.” And the same thing is happening on the other side of the ledger this time around."

The massive money in federal races is getting a lot of the attention -- But Colorado also has more than a dozen home-grown independent expenditure committees working to influence state House and Senate races.  For candidates targeted by these groups, new money can equal new stress.  Because independent expenditures can not, by definition, coordinate with campaigns, candidates often only hear through the grapevine who’s trying to help or hurt them.

Representative Frank McNulty is coordinating the Republican effort to take back the state House.  He says he tells his candidates just to ignore outside expenditures.

McNulty: "Some of these mailings or radio ads are very difficult for the candidate to handle.  And the fact that candidates have very little control in state like Colorado over the messaging these soft money groups are bringing to bear is frustrating for the candidates."

McNulty blames campaign finance restrictions for driving donors to soft money options, and for limiting how much candidates can afford to do for themselves.

McNulty:  "With state house and state senate candidates limited to contributions of $400 per person, as a candidate it’s just very difficult to put all of those things into motion, and because of that, these outside groups have come in and picked up the slack."

Both McNulty and his Democratic counterpart, Representative Andy Kerr, say outside money makes their candidates’ ground game that much more important.  The one thing an outside committee can’t ever buy is the impact of a candidate standing on a doorstep, talking with a voter. 

That personal touch may be more important than ever, in an election season that has voters like Paul Hoffman of Pueblo ready to cover their ears to block out all the ads and robocalls.

Hoffman: "I’m sick and tired of finding my answering machine full every time I come home.  I have to use the delete button, I’m going to wear it out.  And I’m wearing out the mute button on my remote for the TV.  I’m sick of it all."

Several groups have been watchdog-ing those ads for the federal races, but if voters like Hoffman want to know who is behind an ad for a Colorado state race, the search can get pretty complicated.

A law passed by the General Assembly last spring requires Independent Expenditure Committees to file reports on where they get their money from and how it's spent.  But the Secretary of State's office says there wasn't enough time to build a new section for that information on the state's campaign finance database.  Instead, those releases are filed away as .pdfs in an obscure section of the website.

But even having that much information available -- if you know where to look for it -- puts Colorado at the forefront of disclosure, according to Democratic state senator Morgan Carroll, who co-sponsored last session's bill.

Carroll: "The feds haven’t been able to capture those disclosures yet, they haven’t been able to pass that bill, and the majority of states weren’t able to get those disclosure requirements."

Carroll fully expects people who want to influence campaigns to find the loopholes in whatever disclosure laws she and other lawmakers enact.  But she believes voters may be able to do what campaign finance rules can’t, if they get active and start researching the groups they see advertising in campaigns.

Carroll: "If a lot of these donors and groups knew that it became a cultural norm for the public to be able to follow the money, it might change the tone of the message.  They might feel less emboldened to either make stuff up or to be really horrible."

How well voters will be able to follow the money in future elections may well rest with the very politicians they elect next month.  Lawmakers are the ones who will determine the rules for what committees disclose about the money they get.