Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about campaign finance in the 3rd Congressional District.
By Joe Hanel
Herald Denver Bureau
DENVER – If Republicans win control of the state Legislature this year, they can thank big donors like Bresnan Broadband Holdings, Encana Oil & Gas and Wal-Mart.
And if Democrats take the statehouse, they also can thank big donors, like Bresnan Broadband Holdings, Encana Oil & Gas and Wal-Mart.
Those companies, and 60 others, are funding both sides of the war for the state Legislature, a DurangoHerald analysis has found.
In fact, the four main campaign committees – two each for Republicans and Democrats – have raised the majority of their money in 2012 from companies that also gave to the other side.
With just one exception, all 63 of these companies currently retain lobbyists at the state Capitol, either directly or through a trade association. And the last company, Trapper Mining of Craig, used to have a lobbyist but currently does not.
Few close observers of the Legislature believe that lawmakers trade their votes for campaign cash. But still, these 63 companies have positioned themselves as allies of whoever wins in November.
“I don’t think you could buy a legislator,” said John Straayer, a Colorado State University professor who is a regular fixture at the state Capitol. “But you can buy a Legislature. That’s what we’re seeing here.”
A pricey week
McCormick’s Fish House sits on a prime corner in Denver’s Lower Downtown district, an easy walk from Coors Field.
The swanky national chain is famous for its happy hour bargains, with burgers and appetizers for as cheap as $2.
The night of Jan. 12, though, the prices were a thousand times more expensive at some of the tables.
The occasion was a fundraiser for the Colorado Accountable Government Alliance and the Coalition for Colorado’s Future – the two main Democratic “527” groups that soon will be funding attack ads for the fall election. Together, the groups made a $200,000 haul that evening.
Many of the same donors lightened their wallets just days earlier at fundraisers for two Republican 527s, known as the Senate Majority Fund and the Colorado Leadership Fund.
In that one week, Democratic 527s stockpiled more than two-thirds of the $296,000 in campaign money they raised in the first half of 2012. Republican groups raised half of their $602,000 warchest.
When it comes to elections for the state Legislature, these four 527s are the heavy hitters. The National Institute on Money in State Politics found that between 2006 and 2010, outside groups spent as much money on Colorado legislative campaigns as the candidates themselves.
The groups are called 527s after a portion of the federal tax code. They have been around for several election cycles. Formally, they are forbidden from coordinating with candidates.
However, they are independent in name only. Representatives and senators help run them and appear at their fundraisers.
Unlike individual candidates, 527s can raise money from lobbyists during the legislative session. Those January fundraisers happened the same week the Legislature convened for the year.
The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in February that 527s can accept unlimited donations as long as their ads don’t use the “magic words” of “vote for,” “elect” or “defeat” a certain candidate.
Instead, a typical 527 ad bashes a candidate without specifically asking people to vote a certain way, such as a 2008 Hillary Clinton ad that criticized her opponent in the primary, saying: “Call Barack Obama and tell him to support health care for all Americans.”
“Everybody knows what those ads are for. We all know what the real message is,” said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch.
Toro’s group unsuccessfully sued the state to bring 527s under stricter campaign finance regulations.
Now, Toro is worried that looser campaign finance rules will help companies hide their political spending.
“I don’t think anybody can really say with confidence that those are the largest 527 spenders,” Toro said. But they are the biggest fundraisers of any publicly disclosed committee in Colorado, raising more money than even the official Republican and Democratic parties.
The fundraisers continue this summer.
On June 28, the House Republicans’ 527, the Colorado Leadership Fund, invited donors to a suburban Denver miniature golf course.
For an unspecified donation, a company could be the title sponsor and golf in a foursome that included Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. For $25,000, companies could get their logo on signs at the event and enter a team of three people to golf with another member of House GOP leadership, according to an invitation to the fundraiser.
Democrats do it, too.
On Tuesday, the Senate Democrats’ Campaign for Colorado’s Future plans to hold a Star-Spangled Banner happy hour at a downtown Denver venue.
Companies paying $10,000 for an “Uncle Sam” level sponsorship include HealthOne, Viaero Wireless and several unions. The list of $5,000 “Statue of Liberty” sponsors includes AT&T, Bridgepoint Education and Isle of Capri casinos, according to an invitation to the event.
That size of the donations raises troubling questions for Straayer, the CSU political scientist.
“What about the guy on the street? What about the public interest? Is there one?” Straayer said.