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Outside political spending floods House and Senate primary races

Author: Marianne Goodland - June 22, 2018 - Updated: June 28, 2018

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Independent expenditure committees (IECs), which include 527 political groups, have been on an unprecedented spending spree during the primary season on state House and Senate races. One candidate — Zach Neumann, who’s running for the Democratic nod for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Irene Aguilar — has been the biggest beneficiary, to the tune of more than $225,000 since May 4.

By law, IECs cannot coordinate with candidates but can certainly spend money to persuade voters to vote for or against them. And as of June 20, more than $740,000 has been spent by about a dozen IECs targeting House and Senate primary races.  Sometimes it’s to the consternation of the candidates those committees support.

Julie Gonzales is in a three-way primary for the Democratic nod for Senate District 34 in Denver, the seat held by Assistant Minority Leader Lucia Guzman. But her campaign also is backed by other IECs to which she did not object — Colorado Working Families Party and Blueflower Action, which backs women candidates. Collectively the two groups have spent just over $47,000 to support her candidacy.

Raising Colorado, which is funded by Education Reform Now, the financial arm of Democrats for Education Reform, spent $3,658 to back Gonzales. But that’s small potatoes compared to what it’s spent on behalf of other Democratic candidates in the House:

  • About $50,000 to back Kerry Tipper in House District 28 (in Lakewood, a seat currently represented by Rep. Brittany Pettersen, who also has enjoyed strong support from Raising Colorado in the past).
  • More than $53,000 for Alex Valdez in the Denver district currently represented by Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran.
  • $30,000 for Kyle Mullica in House District 34 in north metro Denver, formerly represented by Steve Lebsock of Thornton,
  • Just over $38,000 for Neumann.

Another IEC spending big primary dollars is Assuring Quality Healthcare for Colorado, which is backing candidates on both sides of the aisle, including $201,000 on primary races in the last month alone. The IEC is backing many of the same candidates — Mullica, Neumann and Valdez — but it’s also spent $50,000 on Republican Colin Larson in the primary race to succeed Rep. Justin Everett in Littleton’s House District 22, and almost $39,000 to support Rep. Lois Landgraf, who faces a primary challenge in House District 21 in Colorado Springs.

Another form of independent expenditure committees known as 527s, which refers to a tax-exempt code for the Internal Revenue Service, are also spending big on behalf of Democrats running for the House and Senate. The biggest is one backed primarily by COPIC, a medical liability insurance company, whose 527 committee, Quality Healthcare for Colorado, advocates for tort reform.

Quality Healthcare is backing many of the same candidates as the IECs: Neumann, at just over $46,000; Tipper, at $24,079 and Valdez, at $19,900.

“By law, there is nothing I can do about IEC expenditures,” Tipper told Colorado Politics. “What I can control is how hard I work to connect with voters on a personal level…If elected, my only interest will be the well-being of my constituents, period.”

Valdez told Colorado Politics that “limits placed on a candidate’s ability to raise money from the community has opened the door for IECs to have a large amount of influence on races in our state.  If elected I am committed to fighting for a system where communities back candidates rather than special interest groups.  I’m proud to be the only candidate in my race who has raised the majority of my support from here in the community.”

But it’s the amount of money being raised in Senate District 32 in southwest Denver that’s really raising eyebrows. As of the last campaign finance reporting on June 18, the three candidates had collectively raised more than $285,000. It’s not unprecedented, however; the race for the Denver seat won by Sen. Lois Court in 2016 saw more than $360,000 raised among the three Democrats that year.

Robert Rodriguez, who’s facing Neumann and Hazel Gibson, said in a statement last week that he had never seen “this type of money coming into a race of this size.  Zach Neumann has publicly disavowed special interest money in campaigns but has not come out against this spending on his behalf in this race.  I only have two questions: what are these interests afraid of? What has been promised” to result in the kind of money being spent to elect a single candidate in a state senate race? Rodriguez asked.

Rodriguez has raised the most of the three candidates, at just more than $140,000. Neumann has brought in $117,000 and Gibson trails with about $28,000. Rodriguez is backed by the IEC Working Families Party, which spent more than $20,000 this month on his behalf. The IEC also is backing Attorney General candidate and Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton; and Emily Sirota, who’s running for House District 9 in southeast Denver. Sirota was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who fundraised for Salazar in 2016.

Neumann refused to respond to questions about his views of the IECs backing his campaign when contacted by email by Colorado Politics.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.