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Dark-money political nonprofits were big spenders in Colorado’s 2022 elections

At least $42 million in dark-money spending went to support or oppose candidates and ballot measures
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis makes a point during a news conference after unveiling his balanced state budget proposal for fiscal year 2023-24 on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. Colorado Democrats and Republicans both benefitted from so-called “dark money” donations during the 2022 election cycle. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

At least $42 million spent trying to influence Colorado voters in the 2022 election flowed from political nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their donors.

The spending by nonprofits that The Colorado Sun refers to as dark-money groups because their funders remain mostly secret, accounted for 35% of the $76 million received by state-level super PACs in Colorado, and about 31% of the $47 million donated to issue committees supporting or opposing 2022 statewide ballot measures.

The Sun analyzed the donations of more than 70 national and state-level political nonprofits, including unions and business associations, that spent at least $50,000 each during the 2022 election cycle in Colorado.

The analysis included donations to state-level super PACs and issue committees and spending on electioneering – where candidates are mentioned in messaging but there’s no direct call to vote for or against them – disclosed to the Secretary of State’s Office. It excludes donations to 2021 ballot measures and super PACs involved in local elections that year.

Democrats benefited most, receiving 62% of the nearly $28 million donated to super PACs or spent on electioneering. That compares with 34% for groups supporting Republican candidates and about 4% for unaffiliated super PACs that spent to help candidates from both parties.

It’s possible millions more were spent by political nonprofits that isn’t traceable until the groups file 990 reports with the Internal Revenue Service, which can lag a year or more from when the spending happens. Those returns often show even more money going to political causes that don’t have to be reported to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office because the spending doesn’t specifically advocate for or against a candidate or cause.

Even without those secret sums, the analysis highlights the influence nonprofits have on Colorado elections, and the difficulty in tracing where such money is coming from.

Identifying nonprofits in campaign finance reports can be difficult, because many are listed as businesses or under the “other” category, which is permitted under Secretary of State rules. There is no category specifically for nonprofits.

And a 2019 Colorado law requiring nonprofits to disclose donors of $10,000 or more earmarked for political contributions hasn’t been effective. Nonprofits have managed to sidestep the rule by saying that large donations they received weren’t designated as political donations.

The biggest spenders are familiar names

The Sixteen Thirty Fund, a national dark-money group aligned with Democrats, topped The Sun’s spending list, giving nearly $4.4 million to state-level Democratic super PACs and $487,000 to ballot measure issue committees. That’s less than the nearly $5.8 million the nonprofit donated to state-level super PACs and issue committees in Colorado during 2020 and the $10.8 million donated during 2018.

Other top nonprofit donors in the 2022 election cycle:

  • Advance Colorado Action, a conservative political nonprofit, donated $3 million, most of it to Unite for Colorado, a state-level super PAC that supported GOP candidates.
  • Gary Community Ventures gave $2.9 million to issue committees supporting two successful ballot measures, one that sets aside nearly $300 million each year for affordable housing projects and another that raised taxes on higher-income Coloradans to pay for universal free meals in public schools.
  • Education Reform Now Advocacy, a national nonprofit that advocates for school choice, donated nearly $2.4 million to Democratic state-level super PACs.
  • Colorado Dawn gave nearly $1.9 million, mostly to state-level super PACs supporting Republican candidates.
  • Defend Colorado gave $1.3 million to a super PAC of the same name that supported Republican candidates, plus $250,000 to a committee that collected signatures to get an income tax cut on the November ballot. The measure passed.
  • The Service Employees International Union gave more than $1.4 million to its state-level super PAC of the same name, which supported Democratic candidates
Nonprofits often make up significant percentage of super PAC coffers

The state-level super PACs funded by dark-money nonprofits were among the top spenders in the legislative and statewide races in which they tried to influence the outcome.

Nonprofits contributed 40% of the $53 million raised by the top 15 super PACs. Those committees may accept unlimited donations and spend as much as they want to support or oppose candidates on the condition that they don’t coordinate with candidates or political parties.

Seven of those super PACs received more than half their campaign cash from dark money groups.

All Together Colorado, which supported Democratic state Senate candidates, raised $11 million, half coming from nonprofits. More than $2 million came from the Sixteen Thirty Fund.

The Senate Majority Fund, which supported GOP state Senate candidates, received 27% of its $8.8 million from nonprofits, including nearly $1.7 million from Colorado Dawn. That group was created in early 2021, and also put $125,000 into a super PAC with the same name.

Other top super PACs with significant nonprofit donations:

  • Defend Colorado, which supported Republican candidates, received nearly 87% of its $1.8 million from nonprofits, primarily from a nonprofit with the same name
  • Coloradans Creating Opportunity, a Democratic super PAC, received 75% of its nearly $2 million from nonprofits including $825,000 from the Sixteen Thirty Fund
  • Ready Colorado Action Fund received 74% of its more than $1.4 million from nonprofits, most of it from Ready Colorado, a conservative education nonprofit
  • Unite for Colorado Action, which supported GOP candidates, received 65% of its $4.2 million from political nonprofits, most of that from Defend Colorado
  • Defend Democracy Fund, which opposed Republicans in the secretary of state and attorney general contests, received 55% of its $1.6 million from nonprofits
  • Blueflower Action, which supported Democratic women, received 52% of its $1.2 million from nonprofits
  • Better Colorado Alliance, which supported Democratic candidates for the state House, received 51% of its $4.6 million from nonprofits
Nonprofits weren’t biggest ballot measure donors

Fifteen other smaller super PACs that raised nearly $4 million total received all of their campaign cash from super PACs.

Issue committees raised nearly $45 million to work in support of or opposition to eight of the 11 measures on Colorado’s 2022 statewide ballot. Nonprofit donors accounted for one-quarter of that cash.

Of the $11.2 million nonprofits spent on ballot measures, nearly 70% went to support measures that would dedicate money to an affordable housing fund and make all public school meals in the state free.

Nonprofit donations to ballot measure committees are the subject of two campaign finance complaints from 2020 and 2021. Those complaints seek to force Unite for Colorado, a conservative nonprofit, to reveal its donors after spending millions to fund ballot measures.

A law passed earlier this year would set specific guidelines for what percentage of a nonprofit’s spending is required to make politics a major purpose requiring donor disclosure. But that law likely would result in virtually no donor disclosure. Unite for Colorado, which changed its name to Advance Colorado Action a year ago, spent $17.2 million on conservative political causes in the 2020 election. It isn’t clear how much Advance Colorado Action spent in 2022 beyond the $3 million reported to the Secretary of State’s Office.

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