For the last three weeks, you’ve seen the slickly made television advertisements hammering Rep. Mike McLachlan on CNN and ESPN Monday Night Football.
How much did they cost?
We have no idea.
Once again, a waterfall of money is pouring into the race for Colorado House of Representatives District 59, where incumbent McLachlan, a Democrat, is facing Republican J. Paul Brown in one of the state’s most competitive elections.
Yet the money – funneled through a complicated web of Political Action Committees, SuperPacs and 527s – is proving difficult to track.
An analysis of reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office shows the race already has cost at least $718,000 – making it the most expensive state House race.
This accomplishment is all the more remarkable given that Southwest Colorado’s media market is cheap compared with the Front Range.
The cash also reflects the heightened symbolism the race has taken on.
Democrats are eager to protect McLachlan, whose passionate defense of abortion rights and votes for gun-control legislation in 2013 have made him a liberal avatar.
The same qualities have Republican groups – who hope to make McLachlan an example of what happens to politicians who buck the Second Amendment in a purple district – salivating at the prospect of McLachlan’s demise.
Of the $718,000, the candidates have spent just $208,516, with McLachlan gaining the clear fundraising edge over Brown, spending $89,200 of the $132,400 he’s raised so far this cycle, compared with Brown who has spent $55,100 of the $76,112 he has raised.
Republican-leaning groups have spent at least $219,655 on the race, the bulk of it – $197,178 – on ads attacking McLachlan. Because of ambiguities in one group’s filing, that amount is likely far larger.
Democrat-leaning groups have spent $238,500 on the race, with $131,000 going to ads in favor of McLachlan and $107,500 on ads knocking Brown.
In interviews, both candidates have said the money that outside groups are lavishing on the district – and the brutish species of advertising that they specialize in – makes them uncomfortable.
While McLachlan frequently mentions that he is a veteran on the campaign trail, he said he was vaguely embarrassed by one mailer that “basically shows me single-handedly winning the Vietnam War.”
Brown said he was incredibly hurt by mail ads that have flooded local mailboxes that accuse him of using taxpayer dollars to enrich himself while he was county commissioner.
“They’re everywhere, but they’re just not true,” he said.
McLachlan, meanwhile, finds himself the lamentable star of a ubiquitous TV attack ad that has played on CNN and on ESPN during Monday Night Football for weeks, using horror-movie cinematic tactics to portray him as a villain undermining the U.S. Constitution.
The ad was paid for by Freedom Team, a SuperPAC. Yet in the Colorado secretary of state’s election-finance database, there is no record of it paying for an ad that campaigns against McLachlan.
In Freedom Team’s most recent filing, it discloses paying Rock Chalk Media $50,000 in September for “ad buys.”
Matthew Sheldon, McLachlan’s campaign manager, was incredulous that the TV ads blasting McLachlan had cost Freedom Team so little, saying, “there’s no way that’s what they cost.”
Rich Coolidge, communications director for the secretary of state, said because of the somewhat esoteric matrix of laws that define what exactly constitutes an “electioneering communication,” there’s a lot more money washing around in the race than even sophisticated analysts can see.
Clarification: Laura Carno, the registered agent for Freedom Team, told The Durango Herald on Wednesday that the independent expenditure committee has spent $50,000 on television ads attacking state Rep. Mike McLachlan. She said the expense is recorded in fillings with the secretary of state’s office.