Rocky Mountain Gun Owners PAC: Big bang for small bucks

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners long has been the group to watch when it comes to Republican primaries in Colorado, and 2014 may be the organization’s biggest year yet.

With endorsements in the governor’s race, the 4th Congressional District and must-win state Senate districts, RMGO is stirring up controversy over which Republicans are most devoted to Second Amendment rights.

Founded in 1996, RMGO bills itself as a “no-compromise” gun lobby and as the largest gun rights group in Colorado, though the RMGO website doesn’t say how many members it has. The group is considered more conservative than the National Rifle Association.

But an analysis of state campaign contribution and expenditure records indicates that RMGO’s political action committee is a relatively small player, at least in the numbers game. According to records available through the secretary of state’s office, the group has given only about $59,000 in contributions to candidates since 1998, and overall has spent about $172,000 during that time.

Here’s an analysis of candidate contributions by the group and results since 1998, the first year the PAC was active:

Twenty-seven GOP candidates have won general elections after receiving contributions from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

Eighteen GOP candidates who received donations from RMGO lost to Democrats in general elections, including five in the “Republican wave” year of 2010. And seven of those general-election losses came in 2004, when Democrats took over the state House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. Only one RMGO-backed candidate won that year.

Ten of the candidates backed by the group lost in their primary elections.

2012 may have been RMGO’s most successful year yet. Nine of the 11 candidates the group endorsed or contributed to won in the general election.

Dudley Brown is the executive director RMGO. He started RMGO after parting ways with NRA affiliated groups.

“He may not have a lot of money, but he has a very intense crowd and they show up” to vote, said John Straayer, a Colorado State University political scientist. “He runs a scare game: ‘They’re coming to get us to take our guns.’ And they show up.”

RMGO’s PAC is betting more heavily on races this year than in years past.

During 2013, the group donated $20,000 to 11 candidates. That’s almost one-third of the total contributions since 1998.

It includes $5,000 to state Sen. Greg Brophy’s gubernatorial run. The Brophy contribution was the group’s first campaign donation to a candidate for governor.

Brophy boasted of the endorsement at last month’s Jefferson County GOP assembly. He’s competing with six other candidates to make the June 24 primary ballot. They include Mike Kopp, who earned RMGO’s endorsement and contributions when he ran for state Senate in 2006.

RMGO endorsed state Sen. Scott Renfroe of Greeley in the 4th CD race on March 31. Renfroe is one of four Republicans vying for the nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, who is running for the U.S. Senate. The 4th CD assembly to decide at least a portion of the primary ballot is this morning in Broomfield.

RMGO also has contributed to or endorsed at least 11 candidates running for state legislative seats. Several of the races it’s involved in will include primaries. And in the past, conservative turnout in Republican primaries tends to favor RMGO-endorsed candidates.

Straayer noted that in his state Senate District 23 in 2012, Vicki Marble won the Republican primary with 5,500 votes to former state Rep. Glenn Vaad’s 3,981 votes after RMGO supported Marble. She went on to win the general election in the heavily GOP district.

“The game (Brown) plays is in the small numbers political arena,” Straayer said of Brown.

At the Jefferson County GOP assembly, RMGO candidates garnered more delegate votes than their opponents in two state Senate races. In one of those races, an RMGO flier cautioned, “WARNING: Not all Republican Candidates for Senate District 19 are Pro-Gun.”

The winner of the SD19 primary on June 24 will face Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who replaced Sen. Evie Hudak late last year. Hudak resigned rather than face a potential recall election for her votes on gun control last legislative session.

While RMGO endorsed Laura Woods in SD19, a new gun rights group, the Colorado Second Amendment Association, is backing Lang Sias, a former fighter pilot who narrowly lost to Hudak in 2012. The Second Amendment Association is a nonprofit education group founded in January by organizers of the Colorado Springs recall of Senate President John Morse over 2013 gun laws.

“Lang filled out our survey, sent it to us and contacted us,” said Luke Wagner, the association’s president. “We had many conversations with him and internally. He asked for us to give him our endorsement. We liked what Lang had to say.”

Straayer said he questions whether RMGO and Brown will be as successful this year as in the past, however.

“I think he may be on the cusp of a pattern of setbacks,” he said. “The establishment in the party, such as it is, they’re on to him.”

Attempts to talk with Brown about his organization’s PAC were unsuccessful. RMGO spokeswoman Danielle Thompson said the organization wouldn’t discuss its political contributions.

“That speaks for itself, so we’re not interested,” said RMGO spokeswoman Danielle Thompson. She hung up when asked another question.

RMGO’s PAC is a small-donor committee created in 2004, when new campaign finance laws took effect, to succeed a previous PAC. Contributions must come from individuals and may not exceed $50.

In addition to donating to candidates, the PAC spends money on fliers supporting or opposing candidates with more than $50,000 since 1998 going to the U.S. Postal Service, a Loveland marketing company and a couple of printing companies. The PAC paid Brown more than $15,500. Another $13,000 went to TallGrass Operations LLC, a company registered to Lucius O’Dell, the director of operations for the National Association for Gun Rights, a group related to RMGO and also run by Brown.

And last July, RMGO formed an independent expenditure dubbed the RMGO Super PAC. That group collected $19,000 through the end of December in 1,000 individual donations of $19. Donations to that PAC could be unlimited, however. The organization didn’t spend any money through the end of December.

Not all the campaigning orchestrated by Brown is done by the RMGO PAC.

Brown, O’Dell, RMGO and other groups are being sued in federal court for using a photo of a gay couple kissing at their wedding in an anti-gay campaign mailer in 2012. The suit claims Brown and RMGO created the flier that was funded by another group, Public Advocate.

Part of that suit was dismissed recently, but copyright violation claims are set for trial in early 2015.

Here’s a chart with RMGO’s contributions to Colorado candidates since 1998, based on information from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

This post was updated to omit Gun Owners of America contributions.