[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HIS WEEK there was some jocular tittering as Colorado Republicans launched “CORE,” an independent expenditure website complete with pictures not from Colorado. Underlying that relatively common controversy is a much bigger one that could fundamentally change the shape of politics in Colorado — the official formation of Super PACs by political parties.
Back in 2002 Coloradans passed Amendment 27 officially prohibiting corporations and labor unions from directly supporting not just candidates but the parties that get them on the ballot. The logic was fairly clear — if everyone elected to state government is either a Democrat or a Republican, allowing unlimited donations to the parties that pick those candidates would make the candidates themselves beholden to the money that keeps their party running.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision doesn’t allow for unlimited contributions to official political parties. So as of today, Colorado Republicans are venturing out on something of a legal limb with their new CORE website, which openly describes itself in the following manner:
“CORE is the first of its kind in Colorado and across most of the nation, as the state Republican Party will be utilizing existing state laws to organize and operate a committee that can raise and spend unlimited funds to aid in electing Republican candidates.”
By “utilizing existing state laws” they mean suing the state to allow for the formation of a Republican Party Super PAC while carrying on this election cycle as if they’ve already won that case.
“Republicans are basically forging ahead and exposing themselves to possible penalties,” said Luis Toro at Colorado Ethics Watch. “State law says the penalty for illegal contributions is two to five times the amount of the contribution.”
This all started at the beginning of this year when the Colorado Republican Party asked Secretary of State Scott Gessler for official word allowing them to set up an independent expenditure committee (Super PAC). Gessler, a Republican, said it wasn’t in his legal purview to offer that kind of permission but added that, in his opinion, the Party should be able to set up a Super PAC and suggested that they sue the state for summary judgement that would clear the whole matter up. The Party went ahead and filed that suit, and Attorney General John Suthers, also a Republican, appears to be following Gessler’s lead and hasn’t filed in the case, essentially not fighting it.
It’s a bit strange to see Suthers follow a client’s lead in this regard as he spent the better part of this spring appealing numerous decisions overturning Colorado’s same-sex marriage ban despite official client Governor John Hickenlooper’s advice not to appeal anymore. In the same-sex marriage case, Suthers emphasized that it’s his job to defend all state laws.
If you’ve already leapt to the conclusion that this is all about Republicans being sketchy with campaign finance, don’t stop there, the Colorado Democratic Party went ahead and said that while they won’t be supporting Republicans in the suit, they’ll certainly set up their own Super PAC if the other guy gets to.
That leaves nonprofit Ethics Watch as the only voice in the suit actively opposing the creation of political party Super PACs.
“We’re intervening in this case to defend what Colorado voters said they wanted when they put campaign finance limits in the state constitution,” Toro wrote in a recent release announcing Ethics Watch’s intervention in the case.
And as for CORE, the project launched by Colorado Republican’s proto-legal party Super PAC, Chairman Ryan Call promises transparency.
“[O]ur effort is entirely transparent and will publicly report each donor and expenditure,” Call is quoted on the site.
That should be useful to the Ethics Watch people, who say they plan to win the case against allowing parties to form Super PACs in the first place and then to file the requisite campaign finance compliant.
We may just find out how much two-to-five times unlimited is after all.
[CO PAC graphic by Tessa Cheek]