Jared Polis, Walker Stapleton, and Colorado’s low campaign cash limits


Two recent events that shifted the ground under Colorado’s sprawling candidate field for governor have lent scrutiny to the rules governing how money is raised and spent in Colorado’s gubernatorial elections.

First was the recent unexpected mic-drop exit of Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter—  a move that stunned political observers. The formidable campaigner, and a perhaps a front-runner in the race at the time, abandoned his bid in part because of Colorado’s low campaign contribution limits that make it hard to battle against a self-funding candidate.

Perlmutter just didn’t have the “fire in the belly” to run for governor while serving as a congressman, he said, and noted his decision “accelerated” after his colleague, the multi-millionaire tech-entrepreneur Jared Polis of Boulder, got in the race. Polis, who is one of the richest members of Congress, will use his vast personal wealth to bankroll his campaign instead of having to spend time raising money in a state with low campaign contribution limits.

Now, this week on the Republican side, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton revealed a strategy that cribs from the playbook of his second cousin Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and highlights an increasing nationalization of state politics. Stapleton, who has not filed paperwork to run for governor, might be holding off doing so in order to raise money outside of the state’s low limits, according to a story in The Denver Post.  

In Colorado, candidates for governor can raise a total of $1,150 per person for their primary and a general election— a limit that is significantly lower than the national median for state campaign contribution limits.

The state’s low limits, and Polis’s plans to self fund his campaign, have already led to at least one unfounded swipe at the candidate. 

Last week, on his “Devil’s Advocate” TV show that airs on PBS, host Jon Caldara of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute incorrectly credited Polis with creating the current low-limit system through a statewide ballot measure voters approved in 2002.

“Let’s remember how this happened,” Caldara said. “Not only did Jared Polis enter the race, but many years ago he was the funder for Amendment 27, which set up these ridiculous rules, which made it so rich guys didn’t have to follow those rules. Talk about a great investment for himself. He gives, what, $4 million or something way back then to make these rules that only rich guys can really run now and then in 2017 he can self fund.”

But Polis was “not a driving force” behind Amendment 27, the Constitutional amendment limiting campaign finance contributions, says Polis’s campaign spokeswoman Mara Sheldon.

“Jon was wrong,” Sheldon says, adding that perhaps the TV host was thinking of Amendment 41, a similarly successful constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2006— a campaign in which Polis did put plenty of money.

“Amendment 41 is something that Jared was very successful at championing because that was a reform to pass a law that now prevents lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers,” Sheldon says. “And that’s something Jared is very proud of.”

Elena Nunez, director of Colorado Common Cause, the organization that wrote and promoted the Amendment 27 campaign finance ballot measure, similarly says Polis did not bankroll the campaign. Caldara says he must have been thinking about a different constitutional amendment Polis backed and that he misspoke.

“I was terribly in error,” he says.

The goal of the Amendment 27 ballot measure that gave Colorado its low limits, Nunez says, was to reduce the influence of wealthy donors in elections. “The vast majority of us cannot write $5,000 checks to support a candidate,” she says. “The goal was really to create a process that’s more reflective and representative.”

Caldara says what he was trying to point out is how the amendment gives advantages to candidates like Polis.

About a dozen states, including Alabama, Iowa, Texas, Virginia, Oregon and neighboring Utah and Nebraska, have no limits on how much individuals can give to candidates running for governor, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The group, which has offices in Denver and Washington, D.C., notes the national median limit for campaign contributions is $3,800, which makes Colorado’s significantly lower. In Alaska, a donor can only give $500. In many states, corporations and unions can give to gubernatorial campaigns. That is banned in Colorado. Political action committees, or PACs as they are known, can give to Colorado candidates.

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

Still, while the limits on how much people can give vary by state, one aspect does not: In any state a candidate for governor can self fund a campaign without any limits at all.

That’s because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that ruled restricting spending would be restricting free speech, says Luis Toro, a lawyer and director of the Denver-based nonprofit group Colorado Ethics Watch.

Whether high or low limits on contributions is good or bad for democracy is relative, says Pete Quist, research director at the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“For a state with relatively low limits like Colorado, opponents of low contribution limits would argue that it makes it difficult for candidates to raise enough money to get their message out against a largely self-funded opponent,” he says. “Supporters would argue that lower limits help keep elected officials from feeling beholden to large contributors and make the election process more representative of small donors.”

Polis, for example, has voluntarily decided to drop his own campaign contribution limit more than 10 times beneath what the state demands. As he runs for governor in Colorado he will only accept donations of $100 or less. And, like one of his Democratic opponents, former State Sen. Mike Johnston, he will not accept money from political action committees.

On the day Perlmutter announced he was dropping out of the Colorado governor’s race, he referenced Colorado’s limitations on fundraising to a small gathering of supporters and media in his Golden campaign office.

“Colorado has particularly low limits for statewide races, it’s just part of our campaign finance laws,” Perlmutter said. “It takes a lot of time to do the kind of fundraising that’s required for a race like this.”

Perlmutter, a happy-warrior-type campaigner and prolific fundraiser, said he was looking forward to focusing on being able to do his congressional work without having to be “at call time,” meaning on the phone dialing for dollars. “You have to do that all the time,” he said.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics studied the success rate of self-financing candidates nationwide. The group found such daddy warbucks candidates have been less likely to win when their opponents raise money from other sources.

“Moreover,” says research director Quist, “the higher the percentage of self-funding that a candidate relies on for his or her campaign, the less likely it is to succeed.”

That assessment tracks with data in Colorado, too.

When data journalist Sandra Fish of Boulder looked at more than 30 elections in Colorado in which one candidate spent more than $100,000 of their own money, she found rolling up a dump truck of personal cash into a race doesn’t always mean wins. Out of those 30-some elections, a self-funding candidate only won in eight of them.

In five of those races, the winner was Jared Polis.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the gubernatorial race, Republican Walker Stapleton “found a way around” the donation limits in the gubernatorial race, The Denver Post reported, by orienting himself with an independent expenditure group called Better Colorado Now that can raise and spend unlimited money on his behalf.

“The upcoming Aug. 21 fundraiser for Stapleton will be held at the Cherry Hills Village home of Republican booster Greg Maffei, and the host committee is a who’s who of the party’s money class, notably beer magnate Pete Coors, Broncos legend John Elway and businessman Larry Mizel, according to a copy of the invitation,” the paper reported.

Stapleton will be allowed to urge people to donate to this Super PAC-type group so long as he is not a candidate for governor, says Toro of Ethics Watch. If he becomes one, he would not be able to associate himself with Better Colorado Now. And if and when that happens, the group could still raise and spend money on his behalf.

According to Secretary of State spokeswoman Lynn Bartels, state guidelines say a public announcement could trigger someone becoming a candidate for governor. Such an announcement includes, but is not limited to, “making a statement a reasonable person would expect to become public signifying an interest in a public office by means of a speech, advertisement, or other communication reported to or appearing in public media or any place accessible to the public,” she says. “It also includes a stated intention to explore the possibility of seeking an office and/or the registration of a candidate committee with our office.”

Toro says he doesn’t recall a potential candidate for governor here fundraising for a Super-PAC-style group before. “I do believe this is the first time we’ve seen it in Colorado,” he says.

Photo via Tax Credits for Creative Commons on Flickr.