How much does it cost these days to win a seat in the state legislature?
If you’re eyeing one of the most competitive seats in the state Senate, it will take at least six figures. Centennial Republican Sen. Jack Tate spent $116,635 to win his first full term to the state Senate, which was the lowest spent to secure one of the chamber’s four most competitive seats.
The highest amount spent? Sen-elect Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, spent $255,494 to win his race for a Senate seat for Arapahoe County.
Final campaign finance reports for the 2016 election came out at midnight last Thursday, and showed that millions of dollars changed hands to win seats in the state House and Senate, with the biggest dollars spent by candidates in four Senate seats and eight House seats.
Collectively, the four Democrats and four Republicans vying for those competitive Senate seats spent $1.466 million to win your vote in November.
It can’t be for the pay. Lawmakers in the 2016 session earn just $30,000 per year, although that’s slated to increase in 2019.
The record for the most expensive senate race this year goes to the contest between incumbent Republican Sen. Laura Woods of Westminster and Democratic challenger and former state senator Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada. The two spent a combined $440,124 in their fight for this seat, considered the most endangered Republican seat in the state Senate. Woods lost by just under fifteen hundred votes.
But the highest-dollar race in terms of fundraising is for Kagan and his Republican opponent, Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Doty. While the two spent less than in the Woods/Zenzinger race, they set the record for fundraising, at $460,199. The pair spent $428,047. Kagan won that race handily, by almost six percent.
But more money doesn’t always ensure victory. In the other two competitive Senate races, Republicans trailed their Democratic challengers in fundraising and campaign funds spent, but won their seats anyway.
Tate, as noted above, won after spending just $116,635 to the $167,625 spent by his Democratic challenger, Tom Sullivan. And Rep. Kevin Priola of Henderson, who won an open Senate seat in Adams County, spent $123,700 to $191,905 spent by his Democratic challenger, former state Rep. Jenise May of Aurora.
In the end, the money spent didn’t change the balance of power in the Republican-controlled state Senate, although a couple of the players changed. Woods lost, but Priola won his seat by about 2,400 votes, leaving the Senate at 18 Republicans and 17 Democrats.
In the House, where roughly eight seats were considered competitive, Democrats increased their advantage over Republicans. Democrats went into the election with 34 seats to Republicans’ 31 seats and won three more seats — and defeated three incumbent Republicans — to now hold a 37 to 28 advantage. Candidates spent plenty of money for these competitive seats, too; in some cases, it was downright lopsided.
The top eight races, in order of money spent:
• Democrat Jeff Bridges versus Republican Katy Brown in House District 3 (Cherry Hills Village, Englewood, Greenwood Village and Sheridan): Bridges spent the most of any candidate for the state House, at $244,322. Brown spent $133,244. Bridges also raised the most of any candidate, Democrat or Republican, at $245,646. Bridges won the seat by more than five percent of the vote.
• Incumbent Republican Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio versus Democrat Barbara McLachlan of Durango, in House District 59. McLachlan eked out a 675-vote win over Brown, and outspent him, $158,402 to $145,408 in this House District 59 race.
• Incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar beat his Republican challenger, Jessica Sandgren, both of Thornton, by almost 10 percentage points. And the fundraising was just as lopsided: Salazar spent $148,885 to Sandgren’s $64,918. Salazar won a big fundraising boost this year with an endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, during Sanders’ bid for the Democratic presidential nod, and that endorsement boosted Salazar’s campaign account by more than $50,000.
• In a rematch for a seat in Colorado Springs, former state Rep. and Democrat Tony Exum, Jr. defeated incumbent Republican Kit Roupe by seven percentage points. He also outspent her, $133,287 to $86,012.
• In another seat that has flipped between Democrats and Republicans in recent years, Democrat Matt Gray defeated long-time state Capitol aide and Republican Karen Nelson, both of Broomfield. Gray benefitted from strong fundraising for his 10-point win, with $131,026 spent to Nelson’s $10,883. It should be noted that Nelson raised more than $25,000 and still has nearly $15,000 in her campaign account.
• Another incumbent Republican who lost her seat, Rep. Joann Windholz of Commerce City, also failed to match the spending by her Democratic challenger, Dafna Michaelson Jenet. Although Windholz won her seat in 2014 by 106 votes, she lost this year by 2,449 votes. Jenet spent $105,417 to win the seat to Windholz’ $35,738. This is not as lopsided as it looks: Windholz won her 2014 election by spending just over $10,000 to her opponent’s almost $70,000 in spending.
• House District 47, which includes a large swath of Pueblo County, plus Otero and Fremont counties, featured a race between Republican incumbent Rep. Clarice Navarro-Ratliff and Democratic challenger Jason Munoz, both of Pueblo. What made Navarro one of the few Republican winners in a competitive seat? She may have been helped by her public support for Republican presidential nominee and now President-elect Donald Trump. In a state that went to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for president, blue-collar Pueblo County shocked many by choosing Trump, a win in the county by 390 votes. Navarro was the only member of the Colorado House in a competitive race to enthusiastically endorse Trump. She won by more than 15 percentage points and about 6,000 votes last month, largely based on her support in Pueblo County. Navarro spent $99,877 to Munoz’ $37,812.
• Finally, the only Republican in a competitive seat to win despite a fundraising disadvantage is Rep. Tim Leonard of Evergreen, who took a three percent win over Democratic challenger Tammy Story, also of Evergreen. Leonard spent $53,134 to Story’s $90,310. The lawmaker is currently serving a 14-day jail sentence for contempt of court related to his 2013 divorce.
Despite the millions raised and spent by candidates to win races for the Colorado General Assembly, those dollars pale in comparison to what was spent by outside groups. As of October, with only a month left before the election, outside groups had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the most competitive House and Senate races.
Did we mention a state lawmaker’s job pays just $30,000 a year?