The deep-pocketed outside groups that spent millions to influence the race for the state Capitol

The top race for the state legislature in 2016, at least in terms of spending by the candidates, was the contest between Republican incumbent Sen. Laura Woods of Westminster and Democratic challenger and former state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada.

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The two spent a little more than $440,000 combined. Zenzinger won by just under 1,500 votes.

But that money is peanuts, I tell ya, it’s peanuts compared to what outside groups spent on TV ads, direct mail, internet ads, door hangers and phone banks to influence the outcome of the race.

The Republican-backed Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government spent at least $670,000 to oppose Zenzinger. The Democratic Colorado Citizens’ Alliance spent $725,000. That’s a total of nearly $1.4 million, more than three times what the candidates themselves spent and the most pumped into a state legislative race by outside groups in 2016. Total spent on this one race, by both outside groups and the candidates: $1.8 million.

With the 2016 election season now completed, and final campaign finance reports filed as of Dec. 8, The Colorado Independent took one more deep dive into campaign finance reports to find out just how much was spent, who spent it and who bankrolled the expenditures. The Independent reviewed more than 700 purchases made by just three committees on races that would decide which party controlled the state House and Senate.

In the end, little changed. The Republicans held onto a one-seat majority in the Senate, although with a different seat than in the 2015 and 2016 sessions, and Democrats expanded their lead in the House by three seats.

The reports offer another reminder that while money matters – a lot – it’s no guarantee of victory. One race each in the House and Senate, in which the committees spent the most money, were lost by the candidates they backed.

In the 2016 election cycle, statewide candidates (which include House and Senate, county commissioners, state Board of Education, University of Colorado Board of Regents, local school board candidates and district attorneys) and outside committees spent a total of $19 million. The money went for electioneering communications, which includes cable and TV ads, radio, direct mail, phone banks, and internet advertising.

And while it’s still considerably less than was spent on ballot measures and school district funding, where committees spent $48 million just on advertising, it’s more than 50 percent above what was spent in the last presidential election year. In 2012, statewide candidates and the outside groups spent $12.2 million.

“We’ve known for a while that big money from out of state has been moving into state and local races,” said Luis Toro of Colorado Ethics Watch, which also monitors campaign spending.

This year’s spending represents an increasing trend, he added.

“We think there’s too much money in state politics. We have decent laws restricting flow of money to candidates,” but those laws have been weakened by rulings, such as the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, that have allowed outside sources to pour more and more money into races, he explained.

So what does this mean for candidates who end up at the state Capitol? ““If money talks, more money talks more loudly,” Toro said.

Here’s a look at the money behind by three biggest-spending committees:

Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government

This Republican-backed committee was the biggest spender among Republican-backed committees, doling out $3 million in the two-year election cycle that began on Dec. 5, 2014 and ended Nov. 30, 2016. This committee is what is known as a 527 (the number refers to an Internal Revenue Service classification) and is created to influence or attempt to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of candidates, according to the Secretary of State. And while these committees can (and do) spend millions attempting to influence elections, it’s illegal for them to coordinate with the candidates they back.

Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government raised $3.1 million in that same two-year period.

Who bankrolled  it?

The biggest donor to the committee was the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which put in a little more than $1.5 million. According to Opensecrets, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance spending, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been one of the State Leadership Committee’s biggest donors, kicking in more than $2 million by early 2016. Altria, which was the biggest spender in Colorado on the tobacco tax ballot measure, is also a big donor, as is WalMart and Koch Industries.

The second-largest donor was the Senate Majority Fund (Colorado), which contributed $900,000 and raised more than $3 million. The Majority Fund gets its money from many of the same energy companies that backed Amendment 71, aka Raise the Bar, and that also funded the fight against anti-fracking ballot measures. That included more than $600,000 from Anadarko, Exxon, PDC Energy, Noble Energy and Encana Oil and Gas. Altria, formerly Philip Morris, also donated $85,000, all to the Majority Fund’s 527 committee.

The money, in turn, flows from the 527 to the Majority Fund’s independent expenditure committee, which directly purchases the mailers, TV ads and the like in support of or opposition to a candidate.

An independent expenditure committee, according to the Secretary of State, is a person or group that makes independent expenditures in excess of $1,000 in an election cycle. Once that $1,000 floor has been reached, the committee must register with the Secretary of State and disclose donors, although for at least the past six years, many just report money they receive from other committees, a kind of shell game that makes it difficult to figure out just who’s backing that group.

The Majority Fund’s independent expenditure committee raised $330,000, most it coming from the related 527. But $100,000 came from Citizens for Concerned Government, which shares an address with Alan Philp, who has spent more than two decades as a top Republican operative in Colorado and nationwide. Nothing else is known about the source of the $100,000. Citizens for Concerned Government is not registered as a campaign committee with the Secretary of State.

Another group, Concerned Citizens for Colorado, gave Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government $380,000. The Colorado Leadership Fund gave $330,000. That committee raised $1.6 million, with its largest donors energy companies, Altria and the state GOP.

Related: Hard-to-trace ‘gray money’ raises the stakes in big Colorado races

How was the money spent?

First, a word of explanation. Committees don’t have to report which candidate is either supported or opposed by political spending until the last 60 days before the election. So what you’ll read here today is covered only by that 60-day window before Nov. 8. Any spending before that 60 days has to be reported, but doesn’t have to identify the candidate being supported or opposed by that spending.

Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, according to campaign finance reports, spent its money entirely on advertising to oppose Democratic candidates.

The committee spent almost $670,000 against Zenzinger, its biggest target. Its next highest expense targeted former Democratic Rep. Jenise May of Aurora, who was running for a senate seat in Adams County against Republican Sen.-elect Kevin Priola of Henderson. This was the seat that kept the Senate in Republican hands, with an 18-17 majority. The committee spent at least $570,142 to defeat May, who lost to Priola by four percentage points.

The committee spent another half a million dollars in a losing effort to keep Democratic Sen.-elect Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village from office. He beat Republican Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Doty.  The two candidates combined spent a total of $428,000 on the race.

The committee also spent money targeting Democrats Rep.-elect Tony Exum of Colorado Springs, Rep.-elect Barbara McLachlan of Durango, and Rep.-elect Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village. In the Senate, the committee spent at least $280,000 to defeat Democrat Tom Sullivan, who lost to Republican Sen. Jack Tate, both of Centennial.

The total spending on advertising in the 60 days before the election for the Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government: just under $2.5 million.

Colorado Citizens’ Alliance

This was the big player for the Democrats in 2016 for state Senate races. The Alliance’s independent expenditure committee, which gets its money from its 527 committee, spent $3.8 million. All but $30,000 of it was spent on electioneering communications.

Who bankrolled it?

For that, you have to look at the Alliance’s 527 committee, which raised $4 million in the two-year election cycle.

The biggest donors: education groups, such as the National Education Association ($225,000) and Education Reform Now of New York ($481,000). Big donors also included Conservation Colorado ($265,000) and the Service Employees’ International Union ($225,000).

How was the money spent?

The Alliance focused most of its funds on three races: Doty/Kagan, Woods/Zenzinger and Priola/May, spending a combined $3.6 million.

The biggest spending was on the Priola/May race; the committee poured $1.5 million into that contest, with $1.2 million on attack ads against Priola, who won the contest.

The Doty/Kagan race was second, with $1.4 million spent. Of that, nearly $1.29 million was for attack ads on Doty.

Spending on Zenzinger/Woods was $726,000, most of it on attack ads against Woods.

Common Sense Values

Common Sense Values, a Democratic independent expenditure committee, spent $3.9 million on contests favoring Democratic candidates for the House or attacking their Republican opponents.

Who bankrolled it?

As is the case with the Citizens’ Alliance, funding for the Common Sense Values independent expenditure committee came from its related 527 committee, which raised just under $3.5 million.

The 527’s biggest donors were many of the same ones that contributed to the Alliance: Education Reform Now put in $455,000 and the National Education Association kicked in $225,000. The Service Employees International Union put in $150,000 and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee contributed $200,000.

How was it spent?

Common Sense Values’ independent expenditure committee spent more than $3 million on six of the most contested House races, getting the results it wanted in all but one.

Here, we also look not only at how much Common Sense Values spent, but also any other outside group and the candidates themselves, offering a total spent on each of the six races.

• House District 59. Democratic winner and now Rep.-elect Barbara McLachlan of Durango and her Republican opponent, incumbent Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio, spent a total of $304,000. Common Sense Values made this race its top target, spending $847,000 on radio, cable and TV ads, Internet ads and mailers.

The Republican-backed Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government also made this its top House target, spending $141,000. Total spent on the race between the candidates and outside groups: just under $1.3 million.

• House District 3. Democrat Rep.-elect Bridges versus Republican Katy Brown. Bridges and Brown combined spent a total of $378,000. Common Sense Values spent $596,000 to support Bridges or oppose Brown. Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government spent $125,000 to oppose Bridges.  Total spent on race: $1.1 million. 

•  House District 17. Rep.-elect Exum and his Republican opponent, Rep. Kit Roupe of Colorado Springs, spent a total of $219,000. Common Sense Values laid out $544,000 to back Exum. 

Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government spent there, too, at $108,000, bringing the total spending by outside groups to $652,000. Total spent on the race between the candidates and outside groups: $871,000.

• House District 25. Democrat Tammy Story and Republican incumbent Rep. Tim Leonard spent a total of $143,000.This was the only race Democrats lost where there was big money in play. Common Sense Values spent $421,000 in support of Story and/or to oppose Leonard (who was released from Jefferson County jail earlier today, according to KMGH, after a 14-day sentence for contempt of court). 

Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government did not put any money into this race. Total spent on the race, which Leonard won by 3.5 percent: $564,000. 

• House District 31. Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton defeated Republican Jessica Sandgren. The two candidates spent a total of $214,000. Common Sense Values spent $306,000 to support Salazar. Sandgren got support from Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government to the tune of $18,000. Total spent on the race, including candidates and outside groups: $538,000.

• And House District 30 in Commerce City. Losing Republican incumbent Rep. Joann Windholz and her Democratic challenger, Rep.-elect Dafna Michaelson Jenet, spent a total of $141,000. Common Sense Values spent $319,0000 to oppose Windholz and/or support Jenet. Total spent on the race: $460,000.

Common Sense Values also spent in lesser amounts in a dozen other House races around the state.

Photo credit: Nick Ares/WonderWhy, Creative Commons, Flickr.