Energy-backed front groups turn up the heat in Garfield County

Two Democrats running for seats on the county commission in Garfield County accused conservative front groups with energy-industry backing of reaching new lows with deceptive attack ads and mailers, including one made to look like a legitimate newspaper.

Democrats Stephen Bershenyi of Glenwood Springs and Steve Carter of Rifle are both locked in especially bitter races against Republicans John Martin and Mike Samson. Nearly $50,000 in outside money from 501(c)4 nonprofit political groups and 527s has poured into the fray.

A mailer intended to look like a newspaper called the Garfield County Post recently hit post office boxes in the rural but energy-rich county that stretches from Glenwood Canyon to the Utah border. It accused Bershenyi of opposing a proposed Glenwood Springs development for personal profit and Carter of trying to make Garfield County a sanctuary for illegal immigrants. Both Dems strongly denied the allegations and rejected the smear tactics.

“They’re reaching a new low,” Carter told the Aspen Daily News. “These folks are funded by the CEOs of the energy companies. They must be getting desperate if that’s the best they’re coming up with.”

According to the Daily News, a Sunday story in the Great Falls Tribune said two of the groups that targeted the two Dems — the Coalition for Energy and the Environment and Western Tradition Partnership — are being sued for electioneering violations in Montana.

Colorado Republican operative Scott Shires is the registered agent for the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, and the Daily News reports another group that’s been supporting the two Republicans in the race, Western Heritage, is funded by the CEO of the oil and gas company Antero Resources. Small Town Values, a Denver-based group registered to the attorney for the state Republican Party, John Zakhem, has also campaigned on behalf of Samson and Martin.

Both Dems have questioned the legality of the mailers and attack ads and considered filing a complaint with the secretary of state’s office, but the political watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch told the Daily News the tactics may be reprehensible but likely aren’t illegal.