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‘The most we’ve ever seen’: Election messaging drives complaints, ethical questions

This mailer about Republican U.S. Senate candidates went to GOP and unaffiliated voters, but it isn't clear who is behind it.
Anonymous mailers, Democratic meddling, delayed reporting among issues cited in state and federal Republican primary contests

Mailers, TV ads and other campaign missives are flying in Colorado as the June 28 primary nears, eliciting a wave of campaign finance complaints and raising ethical questions about some of the political maneuvering.

Democrats are behind some of the ads promoting more conservative Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, Colorado governor and the 8th Congressional District – believing those candidates will be easier to beat in the general election.

But the strategy has been criticized by some Democrats, who warn that it could backfire by raising the profile of election deniers and potentially adding fuel to their movement.

“Democracy is kind of hanging in the balance,” said Dan Grossman, a lawyer, registered Democrat and a former state lawmaker. “I don’t think attempts by Democrats to gain political partisan advantage by bolstering the campaigns of these folks who have no respect for the values of democracy – it’s perilous.”

Various Democratic groups are airing ads and sending mailers that describe three candidates – state Rep. Ron Hanks in the U.S. Senate contest, Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine in the 8th Congressional District race and former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez in the gubernatorial race – as “too conservative.” All three are steadfast in their denial of the 2020 presidential election results.

Mario Nicolais, a campaign finance attorney who also writes opinion columns for The Colorado Sun, called the ads an example of “Reverse Psychology 101,” and argued they would push undecided Republicans to support those candidates.

There’s nothing new about political parties spending on advertising to affect the other side’s slate of candidates. But this year’s spending by Democrats comes earlier and is more extensive than in the past, Nicolais said.

“This is by far the most we’ve ever seen in Colorado,” he said.

One election-denier candidate who hasn’t been promoted in Democratic-backed ads is indicted Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, the Republican building her campaign for secretary of state on a false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Promoting Peters appears to be a step too far for Democrats, Nicolais said.

Grossman and Nicolais said that even a remote risk of an election denier defeating a Democrat in the fall is unacceptable.

“As much as I disagree with traditional conservative Republicans, I think for the good of the country we need to make sure that they restore their own party,” Grossman said.

Missives draw complaints

Last week, U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over several mailers that contrast him with Hanks, his GOP primary opponent. The mailers falsely claim the Colorado Republican Party has endorsed Hanks. The state party is prohibited from endorsing primary candidates by its bylaws.

“Contrary to what the mailers state: The Colorado GOP has not endorsed any candidates in the primary nor are we the ones sending these mailers to voters,” Republican Party Executive Director Joe Jackson said in a written statement.

O’Dea is suing the Iowa printing company behind the mailers for defamation.

The mailers, which don’t suggest people who receive them should vote for or against either candidate, contain no disclosure of who sent them. But FEC regulations don’t require electioneering reports for mailers or digital ads.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports GOP U.S. Senate candidates, said Monday that it, too, plans to file an FEC complaint over the mailers.

Liberal nonprofit ProgressNow Colorado faces a campaign finance complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office in connection with a mailer it sent contrasting Lopez with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis on abortion.

The complaint, filed by an Englewood woman, says the mailer doesn’t include the name of the registered agent for the group, Colorado Voter Guides, which was recently created by ProgressNow Colorado. And the complaint alleges the group failed to report the cost of the mailer as an electioneering communication, as required by state law.

After the complaint was filed – and several days after the state’s 48-hour deadline – Colorado Voter Guides reported spending more than $116,000 on the mailer. The group has since reported spending another $233,000 on mailers for a total of $349,000.

The complaints aren’t limited to Republicans and Democrats duking it out. There are intraparty controversies too.

The Public Trust Institute, a conservative nonprofit, filed a complaint against state-level super PAC Citizens for Election Integrity, which is supporting Peters, for failing to report campaign donations in its Monday filing and also failing to report independent spending within 48 hours as required by law. Citizens for Election Integrity filed reports Thursday, a few days after the deadline, showing it had spent more than $99,000.

The group is airing TV and digital ads and has produced a website opposing Republican Pam Anderson’s bid for secretary of state. While it hasn’t disclosed its donors, the people who registered Citizens for Election Integrity have worked for other election-denying Republican candidates in the past. And Peters tweeted the group’s TV ad approvingly soon after it came out.

In El Paso County’s 5th Congressional District, state Rep. Dave Williams is asking for a criminal investigation of TV ads from incumbent U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s campaign. Williams says the ads make false statements about him, which would be a violation of state law. But it’s unclear if that state law has ever been enforced.

Nicolais, an unaffiliated voter who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2014, filed a complaint against mailers in his contest, which he said were nastier than anything he’s seen yet in 2022. Action on complaints won’t be speedy, he said.

“It’ll be well after the election,” he said.

Other messages are also unidentified

Last week, a group called TopLineVote.com sent a mailer to El Paso County voters endorsing county and statewide candidates, all of whom deny the results of the 2020 presidential election and oppose COVID-19 prevention measures.

TopLineVote.com is not registered with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office as a political committee or as a business, nor is the website hosting it, getknown.net, nor is Intergalactic Advertising, the business advertised on the main site.

The website says “This website was created by patriots. It is not approved by any candidate or candidate’s committee. WE DO NOT ACCEPT DONATIONS.” The Sun sent a message to the email address listed for the advertising firm (the address is a UPS Store in Colorado Springs) and were told the group didn’t spend more than $1,000 on the messaging. The person responding wouldn’t reveal their name. That spending would indicate the mailers went out to fewer than 1,000 people.

A group called El Paso County Republican Strategy Forum is running the same ad on Facebook, spending less than $100 thus far.

Several anonymous mailers went to unaffiliated and Republican voters in the 8th Congressional District contrasting Saine, one of four GOP primary candidates, with Democratic nominee state Rep. Yadira Caraveo. Those mailers appear to come from a Democratic group based on union insignia and mailing permits. But they don’t endorse either candidate, thus haven’t been disclosed to the FEC.

In the 7th Congressional District, Republican candidate Laurel Imer posted a video last week questioning primary opponent Erik Aadland’s relationship with a nonprofit and super PAC that are spending to support Aadland. All of super PAC For Colorado’s Future spending on mailers and texts supporting Aadland and opposing the third candidate in the contest, economist Tim Reichert, is going to Telephone Town Hall Meeting, a Golden company with the same address as the super PAC. For Colorado’s Future won’t report its donors until mid-July, after the primary is settled.

Telephone Townhall Meeting was the Aadland campaign’s top vendor between April 1 and June 8, earning $16,000 for printing, texting and meetings.

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.