This year’s governor’s race is like no other in Colorado history — at least in terms of money. The $29 million contributed so far to candidates shatters prior records. A large chunk of that money comes from millionaires, spending big in hopes of being elected to a job that pays $90,000 a year.
“There actually are no limits to what an individual can contribute to their own campaign,” said Steve Bouey, a manager with the elections division of the Secretary of State’s Office.
Democratic nominee Jared Polis, a congressman who earned a fortune in technology, is leading the trend. His campaign has $13 million so far, according to election filings. That’s more money than any candidate ever in state history and the vast majority of it comes from his own pockets.
Add another $5 million to the race from self-funded Republican businessman Victor Mitchell, who faltered in the primary.
“Of candidates who fund themselves in the main, we observe that they lose primarily,” said Denise Roth Barber, the managing director for the Montana-based nonprofit National Institute on Money In Politics, also known as FollowTheMoney.org.
Still, wealthy candidates have an advantage over candidates without deep pockets. They don’t have to spend time convincing others with money to support them. Instead, they can dive in and hire a staff, pay for consultants, TV ads and mailers.
Republican nominee Walker Stapleton, state treasurer and part of the extended Bush presidential family, has raised about $2.4 million for the governor’s race, according to election filings. About half of that is his own money, which he said he put in to stay competitive in the primary.
“We were forced into my having to do that, or make a decision to do that — and I was fortunate to have the ability to do that — because of the massive personal spending of Victor Mitchell, my opponent, in the last couple weeks of the campaign,” Stapleton said. “We were concerned that if we didn’t get our message out, it would negatively impact us.”
The gap between the rich and the poor across the country is widening and Colorado is no exception. The nonpartisan nonprofit Economic Policy Institute in July reported that the top 1 percent of earners in the state take in 17.2 percent of the income — close to the historic highs of the Great Depression. Those in the top 1 percent in the state earn a minimum of $458,500 a year. In a separate report released earlier this year, the institute found a pay raise gap with the top 10 percent of earners in 2016-17 getting a 3.7 percent wage increase as median wages barely changed at 0.2 percent.
Organizations like Colorado Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates for open government, are watching the governor’s race this year with a concern for what wealthy candidates mean for the future of state politics.
“We want a democracy in which our elected leaders are not all millionaires,” said Caroline Fry, the organization’s outreach director. “We want a wide swath of Americans who are representing us in office. You know, farmers and tech workers and veterinarians and folks from lower income backgrounds.”
Supporters of Donna Lynne’s Democratic campaign said she was that sort of candidate. Though she was a high-paid health care executive and appointed as lieutenant governor by Hickenlooper, she came from working roots, waiting tables while in college and then making her way up the ranks of government. She raised a little more than $1 million, according to election filings, but that amount was dwarfed by what other candidates had to spend in the primary.
“The most qualified candidate, which several newspapers have declared me as, as well as our governor, who said I would be a great governor, isn’t necessarily the person raising the most money,” Lynne said during the 7News/Denver Post Democratic debate in June. “It also has to do with the fact that I actually am working. So the time that has to go into raising money campaigning is pretty onerous.”
Lynne has since joined the Polis campaign, along with Polis’ other major primary opponents.
Fry with Colorado Common Cause said one way to soften the impact of wealthy candidates would be to create a system where elections are funded publicly.
“It gives folks who are more lower income and working class a way to break in and be able to fund their race by talking to members within their community and trying to get small donations that are then matched or increased in some way by a public pot of money,” Fry said.
But that’s not on the table in Colorado.
Instead, there’s an effort to relax state regulations, allowing greater amounts of money to flow in if wealthy candidates are a factor. Initiative 173, which could appear on the ballot in November, would allow candidates to “accept five times the amount of campaign contributions normally allowed” if their opponent puts more than $1 million into their own campaign.
Both Stapleton and Polis told KUNC they support Issue 173.
“Absolutely,” Stapleton said. “I think we need to do more to level the playing field.”
In a statement, Polis said: “This initiative is a step in the right direction, and I support it. But it doesn’t even begin to solve the biggest problem with our election system: the influence of special-interest donations from lobbyists and corporate (political-action committees).”
Polis added that he supports “campaign finance reform” nationally and the idea of public financing of campaigns.
Meanwhile, a state constitutional provision meant to rein in campaign spending has received scant attention: voluntary spending limits, which voters approved in 2002 as part of Amendment 27.
The amendment states, in part, that the people of Colorado “hereby find and declare that large campaign contributions to political candidates create the potential for corruption and the appearance of corruption” and “that large campaign contributions made to influence election outcomes allow wealthy individuals, corporations, and special interest groups to exercise a disproportionate level of influence over the political process.”
“That is actually the only restriction in Colorado that places some sort of limit on the amount of money an individual candidate can contribute to their own campaign,” Bouey with the state elections division said. “I think probably the biggest perk, arguably, is public perception — that they’re going to run a small campaign, it’s going to be grassroots. They’re not going to spend a lot of money.”
Limits this cycle are set at a little more than $3 million, but none of the major candidates for governor this year have accepted them.
Polis said accepting those limits is “like voluntary disarming in a war zone.”
“When outside groups funded by people like the Koch brothers are pouring millions of dollars into our elections, we need to do everything we can to fight back,” Polis said in his statement to KUNC.
Interest groups — both liberal and conservative — have infused the governor’s race with money beyond the candidates’ campaign coffers. For instance, super PACs Better Colorado Now and Bold Colorado are respectively supporting Stapleton and Polis.
Stapleton blamed Polis and other candidates for not agreeing to limits.
“That (voluntary spending limits) in theory makes sense, it’s just how do you get everybody to abide by it and everybody to play on a level playing field?” Stapleton said. “Because clearly somebody who has the resources — unlimited resources in the case of Jared Polis — is going to want to put himself and his campaign in the best position ever to win.”
Throughout the history of Amendment 27, no major general election candidate — not one Democratic or Republican nominee for governor — has run a campaign embracing voluntary spending limits, according to KUNC’s analysis of election filings.
Polis’ campaign has touted his use of personal funds as an advantage. He has even come up with a few rules of his own. He’s accepting no more than $100 from anyone and is content if people give less, like $5, according to a campaign email, to “deliver a message to our opponents that access to political power belongs to all Coloradans, not just the well-connected.”
Richard Lamm, the Democrat who served as Colorado governor from 1975 to 1987, ran what in comparison was a modest campaign a generation ago. He said he raised about $250,000 in 1974, which comes out to about $1.3 million in today’s dollars, adjusting for inflation. He walked across sections of Colorado to get people’s attention.
“I got a bunch of good free publicity on television without having to pay for it,” Lamm said, “but also people would say in these communities that we stayed with, ‘You know, hey, he stayed at my house the other night. He seemed like a pretty good guy.’ And so it was a winning strategy.”
Music legend John Denver, a friend of Lamm’s, donated a couple of performances that helped Lamm raise money.
That first gubernatorial campaign was designed to avoid special interests, Lamm added. Looking at this year’s race, Lamm sees that Polis’ campaign is able to the same, but in a fundamentally different way.
“I really give them that, that in fact they do avoid the pressure of special interest money where a contribution, it seems they think, incurs an obligation,” Lamm said. “But I do think that the new problem that arises then: does politics become just a playground of the rich? We have a great interest in not just becoming an oligarchy where the amount of money you have or inherit is the biggest political asset that you have.”
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.