Corporations and billionaires – and their extravagant contributions to the presidential campaigns – have drawn the most national attention this year in terms of campaign financing. But in Colorado, it is the same handful of wealthy Democrats and labor unions continuing to play a steady hand.
Three Democrats, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, software founder Tim Gill and philanthropist Pat Stryker, top the list of individual donors in an I-News Network analysis of federal and state contribution records for the past five years.
Change in the order is represented by the Republican SuperPac American Crossroads, led by Karl Rove among others, also spending lavishly in the state since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision made such giving possible.
But among individual givers, a Republican donor isn’t found until the No. 7 slot, where Joe Coors shows up spending heavily on his own 7th Congressional District campaign.
The I-News Network analysis shows that the top 15 individual contributors and the top 15 contributing organizations combined to spend $86 million. That’s perhaps not what state voters had in mind 10 years ago when they passed Amendment 27, which sharply limited contributions to candidates and political parties.
However, Amendment 27 left unfettered donations to the so-called “527s,” political groups that can spend freely but can’t formally coordinate with any campaign. And it is the skill with which the Democrats play that game that has left even some Republicans offering what sounds like praise.
“They expect those organizations to deliver in a big way,” said Rob Witwer, a former Republican state lawmaker who in 2010 co-authored with Adam Schrager “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”
“There’s a lot of discipline in the way they spread their money around,” Witwer said. “There’s accountability.”
The I-News study was conducted in conjunction with the Investigative News Network, the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Institute for Money in State Politics and CU News Corps in a report that merged federal and state data to give a rare comprehensive look at top donors in multiple states.
Key finding: Big donors give across states
One key finding: Big donors are not restricted by any sense of state lines. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, has donated about $500,000 this campaign season to a California state ballot initiative.
Five with education ties
- 1. Jared Polis, former State Board of Education member, leads all individual “Power Players” in the study.
- 2. Pat Stryker comes in third on the individual “Power Players” list. Stryker spent $3 million to defeat a 2002 state ballot initiative that would have ended bilingual education in Colorado.
- 3. Michael Bennet, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent, is eighth on the individual list.
- 4. The National Education Association tops the state list of organizational “Power Players.”
- 5. The Colorado Education Association, the NEA’s state affiliate, comes in seventh on the list of organizations.
Coloradan Gill, the retired software entrepreneur and gay rights activist, is another prominent example. He has given $525,000 to three Colorado 527s this year – Colorado Accountable Government Alliance, Coalition for Colorado’s Future and The Community Information Project. But Gill has also given in more than 30 other states, including to individual candidates.
In the I-News study, which covers federal campaign reports from 2007 through June 30 this year and state contributions from 2007 through Sept. 12., Gill has given a total of $3,683,894.
Unions take five of the top six spots for organizations in Colorado. In addition to American Crossroads, the traditionally conservative National Rifle Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Freedom’s Watch, a 501c(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, also make the top 15. The liberal Patriot Majority, then a 501c(4) and now a Super Pac, also makes the list.
“I think a big reason for the Democrats’ effectiveness in the last few election cycles is their ability to tap extra-large donors and use those as anchors to fund large projects,” said Witwer.
“A lot of Republican donors tend to be motivated around certain issues,” Witwer said. “Donating to (political campaign) infrastructure is harder to sell, it doesn’t motivate people as much as a single issue would. But in the long term, infrastructure is the most important component in winning elections.”
Polis, Gill and Stryker were central figures in Witwer’s book, depicted as having helped bankroll and strategize the 2004 Democratic takeover of the state House and Senate, and the 2006 takeover of the governor’s mansion and congressional delegation.
Polis tops the list of individuals after spending $6 million on his successful 2008 campaign for the state’s 2nd Congressional District seat. Since then, he’s worked on building his legislative clout, donating to state and national candidates individually and through his leadership PAC.
Stryker gave the three Colorado 527 groups $125,000 in August. The I-News analysis indicates she’s donated $283,000 in the 2012 election cycle so far, down considerably from almost $817,000 in the 2010 cycle and more than $1.6 million in the 2008 cycle. But in both those cycles, the Fort Collins medical device heiress made large donations later in September and in October.
Other top 15 contributors to Democratic causes including writer Bruce Berger and Vail Resorts chairman Robert Katz.
The only non-candidate Republican supporters in the top 15 are Philip Anschutz and Gregory Maffei. Anschutz made fortunes in oil, telecom, railroads and entertainment, with Forbes listing his net worth at $7.6 billion. He has donated $621,050 to Colorado political causes in the last five years. Maffei is president and CEO of Liberty Media. This year, he’s given $213,300 to three GOP SuperPacs.
Biggest power players among organizations – unions
The top 15 organizations spent far more than the top 15 individuals in Colorado — about $62 million compared to about $24 million. The biggest power players: Unions.
The National Education Association, the country’s largest nationwide teachers union, spent almost $1.4 million in October 2010 opposing Ken Buck’s GOP Senate bid, which he lost to former Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet. Overall, the NEA spent some $9.8 million in Colorado during the last five years.
The United Food & Commercial Workers; Service Employees International Union; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and the Colorado Education Association also give heavily to Democratic causes.
So far this election cycle, several of the unions are giving heavily to the same state-level 527s Gill and Stryker are supporting.
Witwer said the 2002 law offered unions a fundraising advantage by setting up small-donor committees that allow them to leverage $50 donations from individual members – often through payroll deductions – for a total contribution of $2,250, as opposed to a $200 maximum for individuals, in state house and senate races. The limits can be given twice per cycle, for primary and general elections.
“I’ve seen many Republicans try to set up small-donor committees and the administration costs are just too high to make it worthwhile,” he said. “The unions (have) large pools of people, so they can justify doing it.”
But Luis Toros, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, took a different view.
“People who don’t like unions think that tilts the playing field toward unions,” he said. “But that’s all disclosed money, money that goes to candidates.”
On the Republican side, most organizations spend on national races like the 2008 and 2010 Colorado U.S. Senate contests. Only the National Rifle Association routinely tends to give to both state and national candidates, the I-News study shows.
Colorado Top 15 Individual Power Players
1. Jared Polis ($8,420,886)
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, spent $6 million on his initial 2008 congressional campaign. He made his fortune by selling his online businesses. As of 2011, Polis was ranked as the sixth-wealthiest member of Congress.
2. Tim Gill ($3,683,894)
Denver-based Gill made a multimillion dollar fortune as the founder of software company Quark Inc. Gill runs his nonprofit organization The Gill Foundation and 501(c)(4) issue advocacy group The Gill Action Fund, both of which have donated substantial amounts to individuals and committees in Colorado and across the United States
3. Pat Stryker ($3,016,772)
Coloradan Pat Stryker and her siblings control Stryker Corp., a multi-million dollar medical supply company inherited from their grandfather. In 2002, Stryker spent $3 million to defeat a Colorado ballot initiative that would have ended bilingual education in the state. Stryker donates large sums to Democratic candidates and party committees.
4. Ed Perlmutter ($1,065,772)
Rep. Edwin “Ed” G. Perlmutter, D-Golden, has represented the 7th Congressional District since 2006. As an individual and through his campaign and leadership PAC, EDPAC, Perlmutter gives heavily to Democratic Party committees and candidates at the state and national levels.
5. Diana DeGette ($967,062)
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, represents Colorado’s first district in the House of Representatives. Through her congressional committee and leadership PACs, including Stem Cell Action Fund, DeGette gives to Democratic Party committees and candidates.
6. Peter Lewis ($875,650)
The chairman of insurance giant Progressive Corp. is well-known for backing marijuana legalization. In fall 2011, Lewis funded a group that tested advertising and online communications favoring marijuana legalization.
7. Joe Coors ($789,000)
Coors is running against Democratic incumbent Ed Perlmutter in Colorado’s 7th Congressional District. He makes the list for donating heavily to his own campaign, though he’s also donating to other candidates this year.
8. Michael Bennet ($782,155)
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., loaned his 2012 campaign $500,000, and also formed a leadership PAC, Common Sense Colorado, that is donating to other Democratic candidates and party causes this cycle.
9. Robert Blaha ($753,697)
This Colorado Springs businessman lost the 5th Congressional District primary in June to GOP incumbent U.S. Rep Doug Lamborn, and loaned $752,082 to his campaign, spending it all. Blaha hadn’t contributed to campaigns at the state or national level before starting his own run.
10. Bruce Berger ($679,950)
Bruce N. Berger is an Aspen-based writer who supports Democratic causes and races across the nation.
11. William Armstrong III ($623,455)
The Republican namesake of former U.S. Sen. William Armstrong II, Armstrong ran unsuccessfully in 2008 for Congress, finishing second to now-U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the 6th Congressional District. He spent $550,000 on his race.
12. Phil Anschutz ($621,050)
The entrepreneur’s main endeavors are oil, railroads and telecommunications, but also include entertainment venues. He supports Republican candidates.
13. Robert Katz ($522,680)
Robert Katz, of Boulder, is the chairman of the board of directors for Vail Resorts Inc. of RockResorts International LLC and Vail Resorts Lodging Co. Katz donates to various campaigns for individual Democratic candidates, including President Barack Obama, and Democratic Party interests. But he also gave to GOP House Speaker Frank McNulty this year.
14. Gregory Maffei ($472,305)
The president and CEO of Liberty Media gave $213,000 to three GOP super PACs so far in 2012. But he’s also given to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet.
15. Chris Findlater – $471,905
Christopher Findlater lives in Florida as a retired energy investor who is interested in journalism, election reform, energy recycling and Amendment IV of the U.S. Constitution. He supports Democratic causes and has contributed specifically to Rep. Jared Polis and Sen. Mark Udall’s campaigns.
Top 15 Colorado Organization Power Players
1. National Education Association ($9,816,251)
The NEA is the largest labor union in the United States representing public school teachers and personnel. A major supporter of the Democratic Party, the NEA’s funding comes largely from member dues.
2. United Food & Commercial Workers ($8,249,834)
The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) represents employees at Safeway, Cargill, Kraft, Heinz, Sears and Saks Fifth Avenue, to name a few. UFCW aligns itself with Democratic Party ideals and supports the party’s candidates.
3. American Crossroads ($6,044,397)
American Crossroads is a heavyweight among conservative SuperPacs. Most of Crossroads’ Colorado spending was in opposition to Sen. Michael Bennet’s 2010 campaign.
4. Service Employees International Union ($5,957,978)
The SEIU is made up of three worker divisions: health care, property services and public services. In 2008, the national union, as well as handful of state affiliates, gave more than $1.8 million to the Protect Colorado’s Future organization to fight anti-union ballot initiatives. But the union also supports Democratic causes and candidates.
5. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($3,957,978)
AFSCME covers four “special national bodies:” United Nurses of America, AFSCME Corrections United, AFSCME Retirees and Child Care Providers Together. According to OpenSecrets.org, AFSCME is the second largest all-time political donor nationally, giving more than $61.6 million in contributions since 1989, mostly to Democratic committees and individual candidates.
6. U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($3,875,499)
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents the interests of 300,000 individual businesses and 2.7 million more trade associations and local Chambers of Commerce. In Colorado, the Chamber spent heavily to oppose the elections of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010 and Mark Udall in 2008.
7. Colorado Education Association ($3,757,605)
The Colorado affiliate of the National Education Association has 40,000 Coloradan educators as members. The group donates primarily to Democratic candidates and causes.
8. Jacobs Entertainment ($3,493,040)
Based in Golden, Jacobs Entertainment Inc. is a privately owned corporation that builds and operates gaming properties in Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada and Virginia including The Lodge Casino in Black Hawk. Jacobs supports Republican efforts primarily in the states it owns business, and has also spent heavily on casino-related initiatives.
9. Coloradans for Economic Growth ($3,406,958)
The 501(c)4 nonprofit was founded in 2008 and gave more than $4 million in support of Colorado Amendment 47, an unsuccessful anti-union proposition.
10. Freedom’s Watch ($2,808,671)
Freedom’s Watch was a former 501(c)(4) lobbying organization that primarily supported Republican policies and candidates. In Colorado, the group spent to oppose Sen. Mark Udall’s 2008 election.
11. Colorado Business for Sensible Solutions ($2,495,500)
Colorado Business for Sensible Solutions was a 2008 issue committee created primarily to oppose Amendment 47, known as the Colorado Right to Work Initiative.
12. National Rifle Association ($2,311,432)
Founded in 1871, the National Rifle Association is a supporter of Second Amendment rights. In Colorado, the group works for and against candidates at both the state and federal level.
13. Planned Parenthood ($2,292,405)
The health care provider lobbies Congress through its own 501(c)(4), The Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and New York. In Colorado, the group spent heavily to oppose so-called “personhood” initiatives in 2008 and 2010; it also supports mostly Democratic candidates.
14. Ameristar ($2,117,338)
Ameristar Casinos Inc., owns eight casinos nationwide, one of them located in Black Hawk. With Jacobs Entertainment and other casino interests, Ameristar spent heavily in 2008 to pass an initiative raising stakes at Colorado casinos with tax proceeds going to community colleges.
15. Patriot Majority ($2,110,000)
Patriot Majority is a super PAC focused on preserving Democratic seats in congressional and gubernatorial races. The group spent heavily to oppose Colorado GOP Senate candidate Bob Schaffer in 2008.
– Katharina Buchholz, Charles Trowbridge and Alison Noon, CU News Corps