Tax-exempt group funds massive attack ad buy against Udall

Well-known Republican operatives in Denver are behind a shadowy 501c(4) group called Coloradans for Economic Growth that launched a $670,562 negative ad blitz against Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Mark Udall that began airing last week, according to electioneering reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Saturday. 

The group, a registered 501c(4) nonprofit, is run by Denver-based GOP heavyweight and former legislator Cliff Dodge, along with Margo Branscomb, executive director of the pro-charter and school voucher group Foundation for Academic Innovation, and Michele Austin, an operative and delegate to the Republican National Convention in Minnesota this year. 

All three have ties to Udall’s Republican opponent, former Congressman Bob Schaffer, including through his former boss, Aspect Energy CEO Alex Cranberg. Schaffer resigned as Aspect’s vice president for international business development December 31, 2007 to run for the Senate.

Schaffer, Cranberg, Austin and Branscomb have also worked together in previous election cycles through a tangled web of activities that funneled money to each others’ organizations in order to support Republican candidates and conservative issues.

The group, which offers an email address as its only form of contact, did not return requests for comment, including identifying its donors or whether it plans additional high-dollar negative campaigns to benefit Schaffer through the November election. An email to Dodge and calls to a listed number for Austin were not answered Wednesday afternoon. 

"It’s kind of like going to a baseball game in a small town; you know who is going to be there because it’s the same old guys there every time," said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University. "If you look at that group of folks, Cranberg and Schaffer and the others, it’s the charter school, (school) voucher group in Colorado, the K-12 folks that [have] been in the same network for some time and now one of their own is running in a campaign."

In politics, though, there is a large difference between people who know each other campaigning for the same person or cause and direct collusion between a nonprofit entity and the campaign of a political associate within the same network.

"This is not a uniquely Republican or Democratic phenomenon," Straayer said. "This is what the politically active and politically sensitive people who can afford it do on both sides and 2008 is no different." 

Coloradans for Economic Growth (CFEG) emerged in May, when the group ran TV ads promoting Schaffer as a renewable energy stalwart who pushed for clean energy while in Congress from 1998 to 2002 representing CD 4. The group’s latest ad buy, a television commercial that went on the air in the Denver metro market, is scheduled to run through Aug. 7 and attacks Udall for "raising taxes nearly 50 times" and for siding with "extremist groups."

SCRIPT: “You might think you might know where Mark Udall stands, but you don’t know Udall. Udall voted for higher taxes at least 50 times. Udall is fighting for the biggest tax increase in history. Udall stood with extremist groups. And voted to block bipartisan energy reforms that could lower gas prices. If you think you know where Mark Udall stands, then you don’t know Udall. Call Mark Udall, tell him to stop raising taxes and start standing for Colorado. Coloradans for Economic Growth is responsible for the content of this advertising.”

FEC dcouments add detail

CFEG registered with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office on May 7, listing Scott Gessler, another longtime GOP activist and attorney with the Denver law firm Hackstaff & Gessler, as the registered agent. But CFEG offers no further contact information via its Web site, other than an email address.On the CFEG website, Schaffer is the only person identified by the group as an "outstanding leader."

Documents filed last Saturday with the FEC identify Dodge, Branscomb and Austin as the record holders of the nonprofit organization. The filings show the bulk of the $670,562 went to a Dallas firm operated by Republican strategist Scott Howell to purchase the media buy and for production costs of the commercial. Howell, who has been involved in past campaigns of Sens. George Allen of Virginia and John Thune of South Dakota, is connected to Dick Wadhams, the Colorado Republican Party chairman and Schaffer’s campaign manager, who once served as Allen’s chief of staff and as the campaign manager for the senator’s failed 2006 reelection campaign.

Although CFEG ran pro-Schaffer commercials in May and June on Denver television stations, it was not required to file an FEC electioneering report because the FEC only requires nonprofit 501c(4) groups to disclose electioneering activity within 30 days of a primary election or within 60 days of the general election. With Colorado’s primaries on Aug. 12, the anti-Udall ads last week fell within the 30-day window, thus requiring a report.

The CFEG filing did not include a donor list for the $670,562 and likely won’t have to under federal law. FEC officials, who would not comment directly on the CFEG filing, confirmed such groups are required to itemize donors that give more than $1,000 so long as the money was solicited to be used for the specific electioneering in question. 

Same crew active in 527s

CFEG is the latest 501c(4) nonprofit to hit the radar screen this election cycle. Over the past two cycles, and amid tightening campaign finance requirements, such groups, as well as 527 committees, have emerged as a popular way for groups to attack or promote candidates and issues. While nonprofits like the Coloradans for Economic Growth are not required to identify donors, with limited exceptions, the same is not true for the 527 committees.

527 committees — named for the federal tax code under which they are required to file — also provide deep pocket contributors a convenient way to advocate for or against a campaign or candidate while avoiding state and federal contribution limits. 527 groups must list financial donors.

Over the years, Schaffer, who is currently on the State Board of Education, has worked closely with Gessler, including serving as the secretary and treasurer of his 527 group Coloradans for Change that operated in 2006.

Coloradans for Change campaigned heavily for conservative issues and collected $600,000 from Cranberg, Schaffer’s former boss. In addition, Cranberg donated heavily to the Trailhead Group, the wealthiest and most prominent Republican 527 committee of 2006 in Colorado, which was founded by beer magnate Pete Coors, former Gov. Bill Owens and current University of Colorado President Bruce Benson. The Trailhead Group does not appear to be operational this year. 

In 2006, Cranberg, Coloradans for Change and Trailhead all donated to yet another 527 group, the Colorado Leadership Fund, that listed Austin as the contact. This year Austin appears as one of the three record holders of Coloradans for Economic Growth, the group that is currently running ads attacking Udall. 

Cranberg is also the connection between Branscomb and Schaffer. Branscomb is the treasurer and marketing director for the Alliance for Choice in Education, a pro-school voucher organization founded by Cranberg that has promoted conservative education issues in Colorado. 

"I don’t think it’s that unusual," said Straayer, the CSU professor.

"You can’t stop water from running downhill and you can’t stop people on both sides from doing what it takes to get their message out. Because most of the independent expenditures are used for negative attack ads, the 527s and other groups can have an impact on an election though and can help to shape the particular race in question."

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Jason Kosena

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