The Independence Institute, Americans for Prosperity and other conservative groups sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into the 2015 school board races and ended up with no wins to show for it in at least two Colorado school districts.
Final campaign finance reports for the 2015 election, which came out on December 3, showed these groups spent nearly a half-million dollars on the Jefferson County school board recall races alone, and that’s only in money that’s traceable through the state’s campaign finance website or through open records requests.
How much was really spent and who put in the dollars will never be known by the public. And that’s by design. Many groups and individuals funnel their funds through organizations that don’t have to report how much they spend or where their money comes from.
At least six groups paid for broadcast and cable TV time, mailers, YouTube videos, robocalls and other campaign materials on the anti-recall side. The biggest traceable spender was the Independence Institute, which funneled more than $238,000 through two affiliated groups: Kids are First Jeffco and Colorado Independent Action.
Colorado Independent Action then turned around and gave $170,000 in contributions to Kids Are First Jeffco, which spent $118,000 on TV and other media buys with Comcast and four local Denver TV stations. Only KCNC would disclose the amount of its buys, which totaled $51,000 in August and September. There were other ad purchases by Colorado Independent Action and Kids are First Jeffco through the election, but the TV networks kept the costs under wraps.
Colorado Independent Action spent $82,000 of its own on-TV ads tied to the recall through October, stated documents obtained by Colorado Ethics Watch.
Colorado Independent Action didn’t report where its money came from. However, the group shares an address with the Independence Institute and its media buys were signed for by Amy Oliver Cooke, an Institute vice-president.
A similar lack of transparency buffered other anti-recall funders from public scrutiny. A campaign committee For Better Public Schools had only one donor that gave $34,561: Jeffco Students First Action, which doesn’t disclose its donors. Jeffco Students First Action is headed by Sheila Atwell of Evergreen, who has published a newspaper that supported the actions taken by the conservative Jeffco school board for the past several years.
Believe in Better Public Schools, another anti-recall committee, received $25,000, also from Jeffco Students First Action.
Then there’s Americans for Prosperity, which ran YouTube videos, costs unknown, in support of the actions of the conservative school board and also spent $132,314 through October on cable TV ads.
The total amount spent opposing the recall was at least $435,000. That figure included $4,100 spent by the three targeted conservative school board members.
On the pro-recall side, the teachers’ unions spending won them not only the three recalled seats but two more pro-union candidates, as part of what they dubbed the “Clean Slate.”
The four groups that worked for the recall spent a total of $295,103. The three recall candidates spent another $157,170, for a total of $452,273.00.
The pro-recall side is only slightly more transparent. Two of the groups are listed as social welfare organizations and under IRS rules don’t have to reveal where their money comes from: Support Jeffco Kids and Jeffco United. Combined, they pumped $96,000 into the campaign committees.
Two other pro-recall groups, Jeffco United Forward and Jeffco United for Action, did disclose donors, contributions and how they spent their money.
Jeffco United for Action received $261,738 in total contributions. One of its biggest donors was former Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, who kicked in $3,000. She put another $4,850 into the 2015 Jeffco school board race, spread out among the five “Clean Slate” candidates.
The last group, Jeffco United Forward, took in $33,967, with $15,000 coming from the Jefferson County Education Association’s small donor committee.
The Colorado Education Association and its Public Education Committee gave Ron Mitchell, one of the recall candidates, $3,000. The same CEA committee also gave $3,000 each to the “Clean Slate” candidates Amanda Stevens and Ali Lasell.
The dollars spent in the Jeffco race marked a big loss for Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute, but neither group is throwing in the towel. Even before the election, those affiliated with Americans for Prosperity were promising that regardless of the outcome, they’d be back.
Paul Teske, dean of the school of public affairs at CU Denver, told The Colorado Independent that outside groups like the Koch brothers, who fund Americans for Prosperity, will continue to throw money into these races even when it doesn’t work. “The loss in Jeffco doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying,” he said.
It was not big spending alone that shaped who won in JeffCo, Teske said. Anger from the start of the recall efforts to election day inspired many voters to show up to the polls.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, Jefferson County was the only county statewide that saw a higher percentage of voter turnout on Election Day 2015 than in 2013. Teske said the turnout showed people had strong opinions about the school board race and that outside money may have played a lesser role in influencing how they voted.
Photo credit: Damian Gadal, Creative Commons, Flickr.