Inside the money game in Colorado’s governor’s race

The field for Colorado’s first wide-open governor’s race in decades might not be settled, but another lap in the horse race is complete.

This week, candidates posted their second-quarter fundraising numbers, showing who has been able to rake in the dough early in the season. All told, the cash in this race so far reaches a total of $5.7 million— meaning it could well shape up to be the most expensive Colorado governor’s race in state history. Of the money raised so far, candidates have already spent $1.2 million.

These gubernatorial hopefuls post their fundraising totals every three months.

In Colorado, individual campaign contributions to candidates for governor are limited to $1,150 per person per election cycle. That’s a relatively small number compared to other states. Giving it all at once is called “maxing out.” In Colorado, the names and employer of contributors must be public. Unlike some other states, corporations and unions here cannot give to gubernatorial candidates.

Fundraising reports are often about more than just dollars and cents, especially this early in a sprawling race. They can offer a window into where donors believe candidates stand on certain issues, as well as reveal the depth and breadth of a candidate’s support base. Some things to look out for are how much money is coming from inside Colorado and what big names with known agendas maxed out their donations to a candidate.

Also, just because someone has filed paperwork to run for governor— and there are 24 people who have so far— doesn’t mean they are serious about it. Another key thing to look for is who is filing their reports properly and on time, and who is not.

So, what are some takeaways?

Democrats have outraised Republicans so far

By a 5-to-1 ratio, Democrats were able to haul in more campaign cash than their GOP counterparts as they dialed for dollars this spring— well, at least those Dems who need to fundraise.

Former Democratic State Treasurer Cary Kennedy posted leading numbers for all candidates this quarter, showing about $340,000 raised in the past three months. She has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, a national group that supports women in politics and helps them fundraise. (The name stands for Early Money is Like Yeast.) Kennedy drew $575 donations from those working in higher education, teachers, government employees, homemakers, lawyers and retirees. An overwhelming majority of her campaign cash came from inside Colorado, and more than half of her donations were less than $100. “I am honored to have the support of so many Coloradans across our state,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Together we will work to make sure every Coloradan benefits from the progress we’ve made.”

Next is former State Sen. Mike Johnston, who snagged $300,000 this quarter. That, however, goes on top of the more than $600,000 he posted for the winter quarter, putting him in million-dollar territory. So far, more people have donated to him than anyone else in the race. Average donations were under $200, and he raised money from people in 43 counties, his campaign said. After releasing his fundraising total, Johnston said his refusal to accept money from political action committees “and the fact that I cannot simply write a personal check to fund this campaign” means he’ll rely on grassroots fundraising. A national presence in the education-reform movement, Johnston also drew a lot of maxed-out donations from out of state. Some of his national donors include Reed Hastings, “co-founder of Netflix and a charter school supporter, and Michelle Yee, an education researcher and wife of the co-founder of LinkedIn,” reports ChalkBeat.

Denver businessman Noel Ginsburg, who is the CEO of Intertech Plastics, raised $92,000 with nearly all of his contributions coming from Colorado and hundreds of donations of $500 or more. He loaned his campaign $100,000, which means if there’s any of it left over, he can take it back. The self-described moderate Democrat noted that although he is a first-time candidate, he has been able to raise nearly $250,000 since entering the race.

Then there’s Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, a multi-millionaire who has voluntarily capped his contribution limit to $100 per person and plans to self-fund his campaign. So far, he has put $255,000 of his own money into the race, and it’s not a loan, either. About 450 people have given Polis a $100 donation since he announced in mid-June, with the overwhelming majority coming from Coloradans. Polis had been in the race for fewer than 20 days before his report was due. “Jared believes all Coloradans have an equal stake in our state’s future and together we can build a people powered campaign,” his campaign said in a statement about why he is capping donations at $100 and won’t take money from PACs.

Golden-area Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter raised about $340,000 before he dropped out of the governor’s race in mid-July. He said he just didn’t have the fire in the belly to campaign and serve in Congress, but named Polis’s entrance into the race as an accelerating factor. He can give that money back to donors, or he could use it to donate to other candidates he supports.

Adam Garrity, who filed paperwork to run for governor, didn’t report any contributions, nor did Moses Humes. Michael Schroeder did not have a July 17 filing on record, according to a state database.

What about the Republicans?

Doug Robinson, a retired Denver-area investment banker with big-name family ties, has so far raised the most money, posting just under $210,000 since joining the race in early May. His uncle, Mitt Romney, maxed out to him. Friends and colleagues “dominated” the donor list, Robinson’s campaign said. Robinson,who is running as a political outsider, also loaned himself $60,000 to run. “I have a new appreciation for everyone who steps up to run for office and just how hard it is to make that call to your friends and family to ask for their financial support,” he said in a statement. “Not only is it difficult to make that call, but people’s support and enthusiasm is incredibly humbling.”

George Brauchler, the Arapahoe County-area district attorney who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter, raised around $190,000 this quarter. Nearly all of it came from inside Colorado and he boasted of having donors in every county. In a statement, he said, “I am not one of the millionaire establishment self-funders in the race for governor. As I’ve said from the time I entered this race, I am the grassroots candidate who will win the GOP nomination by meeting the voters face to face and delivering my message that Colorado’s best days are in front of it.” Brauchler transferred about $13,000 he had left in the account for his last campaign for district attorney.

Victor Mitchell, a wealthy entrepreneur who served one term in the state legislature, took in roughly $13,000, but he hardly needs it. Mitchell already gave his campaign $3 million. His campaign touted Mitchell’s ability to raise most of his money from small-dollar donors who gave $25 or less. He used that stat to take a shot at rival Robinson, calling him “Big-dollar Doug” for taking many maxed-out contributions. Robinson mocked Mitchell’s modest fundraising.

Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter posted $6,270. He says he wasn’t surprised at his low figure and acknowledged it isn’t a good haul. But he hasn’t been focused on fundraising, he said, and is instead paying attention to his commissioner job. He said he eventually expects he’ll raise enough to be competitive but hopes the primary isn’t all about who has the most money. “I think if this race comes down to money then we ought to just hand it to Jared Polis right now,” Gaiter told The Colorado Independent.

Republican Greg Lopez halved that, with $3,413 in donations. Retired banker Joanne Silva of Loveland reported raising just $375. Jim Rundberg didn’t have a contribution report on file, according to a state database, nor did President Donald Trump’s Colorado co-chair Steve Barlock.

Who are the big self-funders?

With fundraising limits so low, it is not unusual for candidates to loan their campaigns money in Colorado. They can donate as much as they choose. The difference is the degree to which they do that, and whether they actually loan themselves money or donate it to the campaign.

So far, the biggest self-funder in the Colorado governor’s race is Victor Mitchell, the three-million-dollar man who made his money founding or turning around companies in the tech, real estate and finance sector. But Polis putting a voluntary cap of $100 on his donations shows he’s more than willing to make up the difference with his own personal wealth, a fortune that has been estimated between $90 million and $140 million.

“I think it’s important to note that not everybody with money is Republican,” Polis told The Independent on the day he announced his run, though he declined to say how much he is willing to spend. In the past, the tech mogul spent $1 million of his own money to run for a seat on the state board of education.  

Some politics watchers in Colorado are wondering if uber-wealthy Kent Thiry, a Republican and CEO of the Denver-based kidney dialysis company DaVita, will get in the ring.

If he does, he could load up a campaign with cash likely only rivaled by Polis. Adding to his war chest would be a wealth of data he gathered on Colorado’s unaffiliated voters when he bankrolled the successful voter-approved Prop 108 campaign in November to allow those who don’t choose a party to vote in party primaries.

As data journalist Sandra Fish has pointed out for KUNC, however, having a big bankroll doesn’t always translate to winning races in Colorado. Looking at 30 races in the state since 2002, she analyzed the success rate of candidates who spent $100,000 or more of their own money. Even though they spent a combined $23 million to try and win office, “the self-funding candidate only succeeded in eight elections.”  

In five of those races, that candidate was Jared Polis.

Is the field settled yet?

Maybe not.


Potential candidates have plenty of time to decide. There is no set deadline for a person to become a candidate, according to the Secretary of State’s office. But if a Republican wants to start gathering signatures to get on the ballot, they can start on Jan. 16, 2018. If they decide to go through the caucus-assembly process, they would need to file paperwork a few days after next year’s assembly is over. 

Political observers are waiting to see if Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton gets in the race. A first cousin of George W. Bush, he could draw money from Bushworld. He has already benefited from a third-party group supporting term limits to get his name and face in front of voters.

Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said recently she is exploring whether there might be a path for her in the race. Lieutenant Gov. Donna Lynne, a Democrat, is also reportedly considering a bid.

Given no clear breakout on the Republican side in the second-quarter of fundraising, there is likely plenty of money out there to be had.


Photo by OTA Photos for Creative Commons on Flickr.