Which party has the most resources to pay for things like mailers, advertisements and voter registration? Republicans, like Mario Nicolais, a campaign finance expert, say it’s not them.
It’s the other party.
“This is probably one of the tragically, most under reported issues in all of Colorado when it comes to elections: Is the absolute dominance by Democrats over the past decade in the monetary side, in funding, in contributions, in outside spending,” says Nicolais, who is not working with his party or any campaigns this election.
The money, mostly national, appears to be flowing largely into Colorado’s version of Super PACs, the 527 and Independent Expenditure committees. A CPR analysis found that Democrats enjoy a more than 2-1 advantage, raising $12.1 million, to the Republican’s $5.3 million.
The state’s Democrats get support from unions, education reformers and wealthy philanthropists. While the Republican Party mainly gets money from oil and gas companies.
These contributions are separate from direct donations to candidates. Democrats still have a slight edge on Republicans in direct contributions, but because of campaign finance restrictions, it's still a fraction of the money flowing to outside groups.
Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst, says a $6 million advantage can go a long way in local races. Once you use that financial clout and target it “in a very few districts,” the “money differential becomes very noticeable.”
Democrats are expected to easily hold their majority in the House, but the state Senate is very much in play. Republicans currently have a one-seat majority there. If Democrats can flip the chamber they'll have total control of the legislature, and the governor's office.
Sondermann, who’s not tied to any campaign this season, says there are intense battles playing out for the three tossup senate seats -- yet Republicans still struggle to raise money.
“They just have not found the marketplace among their donor base to add that extra zero check,” he says. “It’s not, to my mind, for lack of trying, lack of effort, it just hasn’t happened.”
Republicans who spoke, both on and off the record, agreed with that assessment. Mario Nicolais has worked alongside his fellow party members to raise more money, often fruitlessly. The failure to do so, he says, is partly because donors know the GOP has little chance to take back power in a state turning more blue with every election cycle.
“I think that’s where you see the cost-benefit analysis,” Nicolais says. “They can do this analysis, and when they do the analysis, Republicans simply come up short, they can’t deliver on their promises or their words.”
Still, a 2-1 money advantage heading into the final weeks of the election startled even some Democrats. Pat Waak the former chair of the Colorado Democratic Party says the problem for Republicans is divisions in the party, the distracting and nasty primary elections that turn on how purely conservative a candidate is.
“From my perspective, the Republican brand in this state has been steadily going downward.”
Waak noted that some Republican donors may just be conceding this year while waiting for better opportunities in the 2018 elections.
“Some people think that they’re going to wait until the midterm elections, which they did fairly well in in the past,” she says.
During midterms, turnout falls, and Republicans tend to outperform Democrats, even in blue states.
Waak also cautions that Republicans could be pouring money into tax exempt groups like so-called 501(c)(4)’s and (c)(3)’s, which have few reporting requirements. Most Republicans scoffed at the notion there was some hidden pile of money aiding state candidates. Rob Witwer, a former Republican state lawmaker and co-author of a 2010 book detailing the Democrats fundraising advantage, says unreported money can only be spent on a narrow range of campaign activities, making it less useful.
However, local super PACs, these 527 and Independent Expenditure groups, which can’t coordinate directly with candidates, control most of the state’s campaign contributions. Witwer says that hamstrings candidates.
“You really have no influence over your message, and you have no opportunity to dictate the terms of the campaign,” Witwer says. “These are being decided in an office building in Denver, or god forbid, Washington D.C. And these are state legislative races.”
To fix the problem, he says candidates and parties should be allowed to raise larger sums of money. At least then voters would know who is influencing elections.