A conservative foundation based in Wisconsin is funnelling hundreds of thousands of dollars into Colorado to help shift the state to the right, according to documents published this month by a newspaper in Milwaukee.
At the heart of the spending spree is the Wisconsin-based Bradley Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a nearly $1 billion war chest. The group is “quietly using its vast resources to construct state-by-state networks of activist groups to win support for its conservative agenda from coast to coast,” according to a special investigation by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Smack between those coasts, and in the crosshairs of Bradley, is Colorado, a state not unknown to wealthy political activists shoveling money into groups and institutions to try and shape public policy, fill legislative seats, and move the ideological needle among swing voters.
The Bradley Foundation is looking to Colorado specifically as a model for how to do just that, according to internal files released by hackers upon which the Wisconsin newspaper relied for its report.
Consider: “Those internal files point out the Bradley Foundation was following the lead of liberal philanthropists called the ‘Gang of Four’ who famously achieved this by putting big bucks into Colorado to further their agenda there more than a decade ago,” The Journal Sentinel reports. “A book on their success, called ‘The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado,’ came out in 2010.”
That Blueprint plan came to fruition in 2004 when Democrats grabbed control of the legislature. They took the governorship two years later. These days, Colorado has a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. The state has a Democratic governor, but Republicans outnumber Democrats by one in its seven-member congressional delegation. Colorado’s electorate is almost evenly divided among registered Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters. Next year, unaffiliated voters will be allowed for the first time to participate in party primaries, which could add an X-factor to the 2018 elections.
The Bradley Foundation’s stated mission speaks to “preserving and defending the tradition of free representative government and private enterprise,” and to strengthening “democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles, and values that sustain and nurture it.” Foundation president Richard Graber did not respond to phone messages for this story.
In recent years, gridlock in Washington has made individual states more attractive for big-money groups trying to exert influence to shape public policy. For The Bradley Foundation, Colorado seems an attractive target.
While Bradley is focusing on eight states, Colorado is the “top ranked” among them, according to documents obtained by The Journal Sentinel. The reason: “Colorado is an important swing state with a broad base of center-right organizations and donors,” according to the files. Meanwhile, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s CEO, Lisa Nelson, noted in documents that Colorado is also “ground zero in the fracking debate.” Documents also show the conservative candidate-supporting American Majority’s founder and CEO Ned Ryan noted how there’s “also a left-wing donor base” in Colorado “led by the so-called ‘Gang of Four’— Jared Polis, Pat Stryker, Tim Gill and Rutt Bridges.” (The Colorado Independent, which receives hundreds of donations from individuals and groups and makes them public, counts foundations controlled by Stryker and Gill as contributors.)
Beginning last year, The Bradley Foundation doled out $575,000 to five groups in Colorado, the Milwaukee newspaper reported. “One group uses the money to recruit and train conservative activists and candidates while two others have the stated goal ‘to defund teachers unions.’”
According to Bradley documents, one of those is The Independence Institute, a libertarian-leaning Colorado think tank that’s at the forefront of free-market causes, conservative education reform and defending Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment, which limits government spending. That group received $465,000 from Bradley, according to a Journal Sentinel database.
Among other Colorado-related activities in the documents: Bradley also supports Colorado’s Leadership Program of the Rockies, which trains emerging leaders in conservative principles and public policy. American Majority is also looking to open a new state chapter in Colorado. The Franklin Center for Government is interested in creating a “bureau for online journalism in Colorado.” (That has not come to fruition. Art Kane, who wrote for the Center’s Colorado online journalism outfit Watchdog.org, left last year.)
Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, says very few organizations invest as change agents the way Bradley does. That investment, he says, is more about supporting long-term infrastructure rather than trying to get people elected.
“We’ve got some guys with some good pockets but they get too busy into the squabble of politics and elections instead of building the machinery it takes to win years from now,” he says.
Other Colorado groups Bradley funded, according to a database created by The Journal Sentinel, are the Charter Growth Fund in Broomfield, to the tune of $12 million. The group helps fund and expand charter schools nationwide. Bradley gave $485,000 to the University of Denver, $275,000 to Military Community Youth Ministries in Colorado Springs, and $275,000 to the Common Sense Policy Roundtable Forum in Highlands Ranch. Colorado Christian University in Lakewood snagged $210,000, and Jefferson County Students First got $75,000. Boulder’s Becoming American Institute got $50,000 from Bradley. Junior Achievement – Rocky Mountain, Inc. received $35,000. Douglas County Educational Foundation and Leadership Program of the Rockies each got $25,000.
How did the newspaper obtain the foundation’s files?
“Experts in cyber security point to evidence that the theft of the conservative Milwaukee foundation’s files was likely the work of Russian hackers,” the newspaper reported. Those anonymous hackers put them online. To verify the documents were accurate, reporters “spoke with officials at the Bradley Foundation, who confirmed the hacked documents, and people mentioned in the hundreds of thousands of pages.” The newspaper did not put everything it obtained online, focusing only on documents “that most directly affect public policy,” it reported.
Previously, Boulder Weekly reported on a different alleged “Redprint” effort in Colorado involving the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, oil and gas interests, and the conservative education reform movement.
The gist of the story was how The Leeds School agreed to use an economic projection model, called REMI, to prepare its economic reports about fracking and education— and REMI is run by groups and people with ties to oil and gas interests and the conservative education reform movement. Boulder Weekly, which split the cost of a Colorado Open Records Act request with Greenpeace to obtain documents for the story, laid out connections among those groups and people and their political interests along with a seven-page map showing, in the paper’s words, “how the oil and gas industry and Republicans are turning Colorado red.”
Colorado is still solidly purple, and last year’s statewide elections showed the swingy nature of the state’s electorate.
During last year’s legislative campaigns, progressive and conservative groups played a titanic tug of war over a handful of races that would determine the partisan balance of the state Senate. Democrats only needed to hold all their seats and win just one more to control the entire legislative branch of Colorado government.
But Republicans held on to their one-seat majority in the Senate while Democrats gained some seats in the House. A Republican won a hotly contested race for a seat on the University Colorado Board of Regents, but a Democrat picked up a state board of education seat. Democrats couldn’t topple any of Colorado’s four Republican congressmen, who outnumber the Democratic delegation by one. Hillary Clinton won Colorado by about 5 percentage points, but an underdog Republican U.S. Senate candidate running a largely lackluster campaign came within striking distance of incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
Next year is another round of elections.
CORRECTION: A Previous version of this story misstated the year a Democrat took control of the governorship. It was 2006 not 2004.
Photo by Great Sand Dunes National Park via Creative Commons on Flickr.