The TV ads show grim, darkened images of former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper or Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. The ads sound ominous, with solemn music and deep-voiced narrators.
These are the sorts of messages that super PACs and dark money nonprofits have already spent more than $27 million on, targeting Colorado’s two major-party Senate candidates.
What can be identified about the groups suggests most of the money comes from outside Colorado. The same is true of money going directly to the candidates: Hickenlooper and Gardner have each collected about two-thirds of their individual contributions from people outside Colorado, who are trying to influence voters here.
More outside cash is yet to come. In the 2014 Senate contest, when Gardner defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, groups not directly connected to the campaigns spent more than $69 million, based on Federal Election Commission reports. Most of that came in the final two months of the campaign.
Gardner is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in 2020, though his colleagues in North Carolina, Iowa and Maine are seeing even more outside spending in their races.
Virtually all of that money goes to advertising. Candidates, on the other hand, spend on ads but they also spend on staff, consultants and voter outreach.
“Half of what the candidate campaigns spend is on infrastructure,” said Robin Kolodny, a political scientist at Temple University who studies campaign finance.
“Ninety-five percent of whatever a big donor gives to a super PAC will go directly out the door, and almost always just to advertising.”
Some of the outside spending comes from groups that are directly tied to the major political parties or are political action committees with a specific policy interest. They have reported spending more than $14 million opposing or supporting Hickenlooper and Gardner, according to reports filed with the FEC through the end of August.
And more than half that is going to oppose the former Democratic governor.
Virtually all of the reported $7.3 million spending against Hickenlooper comes from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the primary Republican Party committee working to elect GOP senators. Gardner headed the NRSC during the 2018 cycle. Its money comes mostly from large donations raised by incumbent senators across the country. The money gets pooled together and spent nationally wherever the party feels it will do the most good.
Meanwhile, nearly $3.6 million has been spent so far to attack Gardner in TV and digital ads.
Giffords PAC, a PAC supporting gun control efforts such as stronger background checks, has made Gardner its primary target, spending nearly $1.4 million. The Giffords PAC ads criticize Gardner for opposing legislation to create universal gun background checks.
Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC connected with Democratic leadership in the Senate, spent $2 million opposing Gardner. It spent another $2.6 million on messages that show support for Hickenlooper.
Super PACs such as Senate Majority may take unlimited donations and spend unlimited sums as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates or political parties. That’s based on past U.S. Supreme Court decisions. But the lines between such PACs and political parties are often finely drawn.
“They're technically separate,” Temple’s Kolodny said. “But if (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer created it, he gave it the same marching orders as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.”
Other groups are sure to enter the super PAC spending spree. Republican super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, began airing TV ads in Colorado on Monday, with at least $4.2 million scheduled through the fall. Senate Majority PAC has at least $3.6 million in TV ads through Election day, according to contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission.
Not all groups aiming to influence voters have to report their spending to the FEC but some of their spending can be tracked down through other sources.
Nonprofit groups have spent at least $13 million on the Senate contest thus far based on TV ad contracts filed with the FCC and digital ad disclosures in OpenSecrets’ online ad spending data.
Those groups may spend as much as they want and avoid disclosure by simply not suggesting a vote for or against a candidate, up until 60 days before the general election. Instead, the ads often suggest calling a candidate to offer an opinion on legislation. Those nonprofits don’t report their donors and are known as dark money groups. There are clues that they are connected to the national Republican and Democratic parties.
Coloradans first heard about the Senate contest via TV ads last September, when a new nonprofit, Rocky Mountain Values, began to air ads critical of Gardner on climate change and health care. Ultimately, the organization – a partnership of traditional Democratic groups – spent $2.3 million on TV ads and nearly $303,000 on digital ads.
One of their ads noted Gardner’s contributions from oil and gas interests, and suggested calling Gardner’s office to ask him to “stop protecting polluters” and to “protect Colorado’s clean air and water.”
In March, Unite for Colorado, a new Republican nonprofit, began to air ads noting ethics allegations against Hickenlooper. The group spent $3.3 million on TV and nearly $425,000 on digital ads through the end of August.
Local nonprofits like Rocky Mountain Values and Unite for Colorado spring up during election years and, in past instances, groups like these have ultimately been tied to national party leadership.
A more direct connection can be made between national nonprofits and federal super PACs operated by the party leadership. Majority Forward spent nearly $2.8 million and Duty & Honor spent nearly $1.5 million on TV ads critical of Gardner. Both groups are affiliated with Senate Majority PAC — the one tied to Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer. Majority Forward is one of the top donors to Senate Majority PAC.
On the other side, One Nation, which is affiliated with the Senate Leadership Fund — Mitch McConnell’s group — spent nearly $1.5 million on TV ads supporting Gardner. Unite for Colorado uses the same TV ad-buying firm as One Nation and Senate Leadership Fund, indicating the groups may be working together just as the Democratic groups are doing.
“There's so much money because the Supreme Court has said that these groups and individuals can basically spend as much as they want as long as they don't coordinate,” said Danielle Caputo, a lawyer with the bipartisan political reform group Issue One. “You don't know where that money is coming from, and you're being inundated with this speech. Transparency is one of the few ways we have to really prevent corruption or its appearance.”
Now that election day is less than 60 days away, nonprofits may no longer mention candidates without at least disclosing their spending to the FEC.
Rocky Mountain Values disbanded at the end of July, while Unite for Colorado created state and federal super PACs in August. But those super PACs may be funded by the nonprofit, meaning voters still won’t know who’s paying for the advertising.
The two candidates are also spending heavily on TV advertising. Before Sept. 1, Hickenlooper had spent $5.7 million on TV ad time, and Gardner’s campaign had spent more than $3 million on TV ad contracts.
Both campaigns are scheduling millions more worth of TV ads for the next two months.
And both are depending on out-of-state donors for the bulk of their fundraising from individuals. Colorado donors make up just 36 percent of Gardner’s $9.7 million from itemized individual donors. He started raising money for his 2020 bid shortly after taking office in 2015. Among the roughly two-thirds of his fundraising that comes from out of state, Florida donors made up 9 percent of Gardner’s total. Californians make up 8.8 percent.
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The overall numbers are similar for Hickenlooper. Thirty-two percent of Hickenlooper’s $10.5 million had come from Coloradans through June 30. New York donors make up 15.6 percent of his total, followed by Californians at 14.6 percent.
In all, including contributions from political action committees and those giving less than $200, Gardner raised $17.2 million through June 30 compared with Hickenlooper’s $14.2 million.
More than $3.3 million of Gardner’s money came from business PACs, according to OpenSecrets, while Hickenlooper isn’t accepting business PAC cash. The Democrat is, however, taking money from leadership PACs operated by other politicians, and those PACs often take money from business PACs.
There has been no outside money reported spent on any of the third-party candidates running in the Senate race.
This story is a part of #FollowtheMoneyCO, a project of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) with support from the Colorado Media Project.