When trying to buy an election, it’s common to anguish over the price.
Lore has it that on the eve of the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary, Joe Kennedy telegrammed his son, “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll help you win this election, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide!’”
Republicans and Democrats are practicing no such frugality as they vie to acquire the 59th District seat in the Colorado House of Representatives.
The most recent filings with the Colorado secretary of state show that with a week to go, the contest between Republican incumbent J. Paul Brown and Democratic challenger Mike McLachlan – one of the most competitive in the state – has already cost more than $1.2 million all in, making it one of the steepest House races in state history.
Of that $1.2 million, the candidates’ direct spending accounts for just $220,000, meaning that outside groups – largely Super PACs and 527s – have spent just under a million dollars on the race.
The way groups report their disbursements to the secretary of state can overstate how much they spent supporting or attacking a specific candidate. But filings disclose that Republican groups may have spent as much $590,000 on Brown’s behalf, while Democratic groups have dropped about $400,000 on McLachlan’s.
The scale and nature of the spending is unprecedented in the 59th District.
In 2010, outside groups, all Republican, spent just $57,000, whereas the candidates Brown and Democrat Brian O’Donnell themselves spent $177,000 – the majority of the mere $234,000 that was spent over all.
Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the secretary of state, said this election, two other House races – between incumbent Democrat Pete Lee and the GOP’s Jennifer George in District 18, and between incumbent Democrat Daniel Kagan and GOP challenger Brian Watson in District 3 – were poised to surpass the 59th in exorbitance.
But Coolidge said the 59th District’s $1.2 million price tag (and counting) was remarkable given that, unlike Denver, local media markets are extremely affordable.
Though outside groups are spending like drunken sailors, their largesse is underwritten by sober calculations about the district’s significance.
The 59th was redrawn last year in a bitter redistricting process that left the seat more competitive for Democrats.
Justin Miller, spokesman for the Colorado Republican Party, wrote in an email that GOP groups were making dizzying outlays on the race because, “our majority is the only thing standing in the way of the Democrats’ tax-and-spend agenda, which they have proven they will spare no cost in achieving.”
The Colorado Democratic Party’s spokesperson Matt Inzeo could not be reached for comment.
Right now, Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the state House.
The groups lavishing money on the 59th District are the usual suspects of campaign finance in Colorado.
On the Republican side, the Colorado Leadership Fund LLC has settled almost $47,000 shoring up Brown’s candidacy while Citizen Link Independent Expenditure Committee, a Super PAC affiliated with Focus on the Family, has spent more than $125,000 on mailings that target McLachlan and other Democrats for their views on abortion and gay marriage.
But the big GOP money is coming from Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, the ascendant conservative 527, which has spent $400,000 on ads attacking McLachlan and other Democrats or touting Brown.
On the Democratic side, a Super PAC is responsible for the bulk of the spending, with the Colorado Accountable Government Alliance IE Committee sinking $265,000 into the race since September. The Community Information Project and Resources for a Better Colorado, both Super PACs, have each shelled out $35,000.
Though mailers, robocalls, and TV and radio ads are the bread and butter of political advertising, one liberal group is betting on more avant-garde forms of messaging.
Just a few weeks after the League of Conservation Voters, a powerful environmental lobby, named Brown to its “Dirty Dozen” list – which designates 12 of the most anti-environmental state-level candidates in the country – its Super PAC is footing the $23,000 bill for an aggressive social-media campaign that decries Brown’s voting record on websites such as Merriam-Webster, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Youtube.
Spokesman Chris Arend said, “It’s an extremely close race. We’re just trying to get the word out.”
Coolidge said it was “too soon to tell” how much money could be spent in the next five days.