What To Make Of The Latest Pro-Business Group To Jump Into Colorado Elections

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David Zalubowski/AP
Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, left, confers with state Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Castle Rock, in the Senate chamber in the State Capitol, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Denver.

In the already-crowded playing field of Colorado’s 2020 election, a new conservative group is expected to draw an infusion of money from major GOP business donors who want to ensure Republicans don’t suffer more state-level losses in November. 

Unite For Colorado is designated by the IRS as a 501c4, also known as a “social welfare organization,” which means it can raise unlimited amounts of money and doesn’t have to disclose its donors or fundraising details. So it won’t be apparent how much the group is bringing new money into politics, versus taking it from existing Republican organizations.

Unite For Colorado’s stated aim is to focus on pro-business, limited government policies, and the politicians who support those ideas. It’s part of a larger effort by conservatives to try to pull out some victories as Colorado heads into what’s expected to be another tough election for Republicans.

“In these types of years, in presidential election years, I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say conservatives are facing headwinds from an electoral standpoint,” said Dustin Zvonek who formerly worked for Americans For Prosperity and heads the new group.

The 2018 election was a blowout for Colorado Democrats; they flipped control of the state Senate and widened their House majority by picking up some traditionally red districts. Republicans now hold just 24 out of 65 seats in the House, their lowest number since 1965. 

Republicans with knowledge of the new group say it’s likely to initially focus mostly on state Senate races. The party is concerned about losing more seats in that chamber since it’s still relatively closely divided. Unite For Colorado's Zvonek said 2020 is just the starting point.

“This isn’t an election-cycle organization and we hope to be a long-term player in public policy in the state." 

One group among many

The GOP already has the Senate Majority Fund, overseen by Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, which has traditionally taken the lead in Senate races. Political strategists warn that having too many groups participating in the same races risks mixed messages and misspent money.

Matt McGovern, the head of the Colorado House Majority Project, the Democratic Party’s organization to back candidates in that chamber, sees the emergence of a new Republican group this close to the election as a sign that some Republican donors have lost faith in their party’s infrastructure.

“To me, that looks like they are doing a late-game 'Hail Mary' to try to work around the existing program,” he said. “So to me, it doesn't seem like the GOP has a cohesive team that is working together towards a common goal.”

Zvonek said his group’s backers do feel like there’s a gap to fill in conservative efforts, but he dismissed the idea that Unite For Colorado could end up at cross-purposes to endeavors by the party or other independent groups.

“We won’t always jump in. We’re making sure we’re collaborating in ways that are compliant and making sure groups aren’t all stepping over each other,” Zvonek said.

Michael Fields, who heads another limited-government group, Colorado Rising State Action, agrees that there’s room for more people at the table.

“I think it's going to be a longer-term, coalition-building exercise,” said Fields. “Every group has its own donors and people that they talk to. I think it's a good sign that there's a lot of groups interested this year, and I think they'll continue to be featured. The Left has done a good job for a long time of coordinating their different groups.”

Democratic candidates generally get help from an assortment of labor unions, environmental activists, progressive groups, and others.

New group part of ongoing debate over the future of the GOP 

Several rough election cycles have left Republicans without a single major statewide office and significantly less influence in Colorado’s legislature. 

Republicans have criticized Democrats for using their majority to pass stricter oil and gas regulations, and undo some state tax deductions for businesses and high earners from the federal Republican tax law. Democrats have also been working for several years to try to create a state-run family and medical leave program, paid for in part by employers. 

Policies like that have business groups playing defense and hoping to try to win back power for the party that has traditionally been more aligned with their interests. At the same time, the GOP and its supporters are grappling with their own message and how to stay relevant. 

Last year, a Republican state lawmaker and two former statehouse colleagues challenged their leadership by creating a new organization to recruit and train more moderate candidates in the House. It aims to appeal to the state’s growing segment of unaffiliated voters. The effort put them at odds with the established soft money group controlled by House GOP leadership, which has generally backed candidates with more hard-line conservative stances.  

That conflict came to a head in the June primaries; the new independent expenditure committee, Friends for the Future, joined other organizations to support four legislative candidates against more conservative opponents, all of whom were backed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. RMGO has long been a strong force in Republican races, and the group is closely aligned with House Minority Leader Patrick Neville. In all four races, the more moderate candidate won.  

“We believe we did make a difference,” said state Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf of Fountain, one of the founders of Friends for the Future. “Obviously we’re not raising a million dollars like some organizations do. I think if we keep being successful we could accomplish that in the future.” 

House Republicans are also divided over who should lead their caucus next year, which could have a major impact on whether Colorado Republican lawmakers embrace a more moderate tone or double down on a conservative message.  

Former Republican state lawmaker Polly Lawrence, an advisor with Friends for the Future, supports a bigger tent approach for the GOP and thinks this will be an incredibly important election year to try to move Colorado back toward the purple column.  

“Colorado functions better when the legislature is split,” said Lawrence. “It brings a balance to legislation that is run and bills that are passed. It also requires legislators to reach out to their constituents and listen to what the people of Colorado want.” 

Even with one-party control, Republicans and Democrats did work together on several of this year’s major pieces of legislation, including a sweeping law enforcement accountability measure. Lawmakers of both parties also agreed to send a constitutional tax question to voters: Should the state repeal the Gallagher Amendment, which threatens to reduce school budgets by hundreds of millions by automatically lowering property tax bills in the future.

Some Republicans said the new conservative groups need to make sure their messages are consistent and united, so as not to dilute their effectiveness. There are limited resources and time, and only so many donors willing to put up significant money. 

“I think that there's always going to be sniping in political circles, but the overall agenda, the overall goal is simply to win one of the two chambers and to bring balance back to the state of Colorado,” said Republican Frank McNulty, a former statehouse Speaker. “That mission is held by everybody who's involved.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the organization Dustin Zvonek leads. The group originally named in the story, Colorado Stronger Alliance, is also a recently-formed 501c4 with a very similar mission.