Election 2018News

TRAIL MIX: Independents flex their money muscles

Author: Ernest Luning - May 25, 2018 - Updated: May 25, 2018

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Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite Colorado (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

The organization that rolled into Colorado last year with the goal of electing some unaffiliated candidates to the legislature had some big news recently.

Unite Colorado, the state-level arm of Unite America — perhaps better known by its old name, the Centrist Project — proudly announced that the five independent House and Senate candidates it’s endorsed raised many times the total amounts raised by their Democratic and Republican opponents.

That was according to campaign finance reports for legislative candidates filed May 7, which covered the first four months of the year, from Jan. 1 to May 2. (The reports are usually filed quarterly, but a more frequent pre-primary filing schedule kicks in this month, so this period wound up with an extra month before they start coming in a hurry with the next report.)

The five Unite Colorado-endorsed candidates, including four House hopefuls and one aspiring senator, raised a total of $129,516 — nearly three times as much as the $46,593 raised by all the Democrats and Republicans running for the same seats, including two powerful incumbents.

Throw in the $7,105 raised by a House candidate that has Unite Colorado’s support — but not its official endorsement — which only barely edges out the $6,674 raised by the otherwise unopposed Democratic incumbent, and the fundraising still fits the headline even if it’s not quite as impressive a haul.

Looked at another way, the haul over the last reporting period is even more startling. Considering just the five House candidates — running in districts 18, 31, 33, 54 and 59 — the total amount raised by the candidates supported by Unite Colorado adds up to $105,393, compared with $156,728 raised by every Republican House candidate in the state.

The Democrats running for the House left them both in the dust, raising $507,191 since the first of the year. But the fact that just five unaffiliated candidates even came within shouting distance of 59 Republicans has got to have turned some heads.

Absent specific polling or even much attention, it was the first public inkling of the independent slate of candidates’ prospects in the fall election, when Unite Colorado has vowed to break the Colorado curse that has kept unaffiliated candidates from winning election to the General Assembly since the advent of modern politics.

Up until now, it’s been hard to say whether the Unite Colorado candidates amount to the political equivalent of vaporware — a handful of slogans buffeted by a regular stream of press releases.

But the fundraising news at least means there’s some substance to the enterprise.

Nick Troiano, the young executive director of Unite Colorado and its parent, crowed that the fundraising results make it clear: “Much-needed new competition has officially arrived in Colorado politics, and voters will have a viable alternative to both parties this fall.”

Almost immediately, the partisan critics started howling.

These fundraising advantages are by no means sustainable, more than one harrumphed, making an entirely valid but somewhat meaningless point.

Did you see how much money they raised from out-of-state donors? another said. It’s a front for right-wingers hoping to rebrand a Republican Party tarnished by Donald Trump, a couple suggested.

In the heavily Republican Senate District 30, for instance, independent candidate Steve Peterson pulled in $31,228, more than three times the total raised by Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, the GOP incumbent, and Democratic nominee Julia Forbes Varnell-Sarjeant. Between the two of them, the major-party candidates raised $8,975, with Holbert drumming up about three times as much as Varnell-Sarjeant.

No one expects Peterson to keep out-raising one of the most powerful legislators in the state at that rate — it would be a thunderclap of a development if he did.

As to some of the other objections, it’s true that most newly minted candidates tap out their family and friends in the first fundraising round — plucking the proverbial low-hanging fruit — and have a tougher time drumming up support as the quarters tick by.

It’s also true that a donor network sends money to major-party candidates, just like it looks one is doing with the Unite Colorado bunch. That is, after all, the way campaign fundraising works.

But the difference between raising enough to run a viable campaign — backed up by the roughly $1 million the Unite Colorado project has said it plans to spend supporting its slate — sets this crop of independents apart from the token candidates the major parties run in overwhelmingly unfavorable districts.

As for one of the most persistent criticisms leveled at the Unite Colorado project — that it’s merely the latest attempt to slip some right-wing candidates past unwitting voters, or that it’s a multi-dimensional chess operation designed to split the vote with Democrats and tilt a few districts into GOP hands — the jury is still out, although indications are it’s a misplaced concern.

Most of the group’s publicly facing organizers, supporters and donors are either long-time independents — Troiano ran as one for Congress in Pennsylvania a while back — or turned that way after splitting from the Democrats or Republicans over complaints about excessive partisanship.

There also appears to be a share of supporters who count themselves as “disruptors” in their fields, mirroring the mission of the group they’re backing.

With roughly five months to go until general election ballots are in the hands of Colorado voters, the Unite Colorado candidates have plenty more markers to pass before the punditry believes they’ve got a chance, but they appear to have passed the first one at full speed.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.