In Colorado’s primary elections, some TV ad money is disclosed and some is in the dark

Let’s talk about money.

Specifically, let’s talk about candidate money, super PAC money and “dark” money.

If your TV has been on in recent days and you have cable, well, you’ve been seeing all three, as we pointed out last week in a story about different types of ads supporting Democratic Congressman Jared Polis’s bid for governor.

But his campaign isn’t the only example.

First, some summary stats on TV ads, based on a review of contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission by Colorado TV and cable stations:

  • At least $16.6 million spent since January.
  • More than 61,000 ad spots, which would tally more than 21 days of solid TV viewing.
  • Nearly $11.4 million spent for ads in the contest for governor, where four Republicans and four Democrats are duking it out in the June 26 primary.
  • Most of that money is disclosed because much of it is candidate money.

Here’s a chart for the top 30 spenders:

And here’s a chart of TV ad spending by the candidates for governor and various independent spending committees, aka, super PACs:

Let’s break down those numbers in the governor’s race:

  • Nearly 50 percent of TV advertising comes from one candidate. That’s Polis at $5.6 million.
  • Republican Victor Mitchell, another multimillionaire, comes in second with 12 percent of the spending, or $1.4 million.
  • All told, candidates account for nearly $8.9 million of the $11.4 million spending revealed by FCC contracts.
  • Outside groups are down for at least $2.5 million worth of the spending. Stations aren’t required to file contracts for super PACs’ spending on state-level candidates or issues, though many do.

Candidates in Colorado may take only $1,150 total from individual donors, with half of that for the primary election and half for the general election. In 2016, the state’s limit was the second lowest in the nation, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. Donors of $20 or more to a candidate must be disclosed.

The super PACs are a different animal. Also called IECs, they may take unlimited donations and spend unlimited amounts, though they’re prohibited from coordinating with candidates and their campaigns. And they must file details about independent spending within 48 hours in the 30 days before an election.

So here’s the lowdown on the super PAC spending the most on TV ads:

  • Contracts for Frontier Fairness, which supports Democrat Mike Johnston, reported to the FCC totaled more than $870,000 in ads beginning before May 26, the month before the election, and more than $403,000 on May 26 and after.
  • But Frontier Fairness reported spending more than $2.1 million on TV ads since June 3 in independent spending disclosures with the Secretary of State.
  • The super PAC reports taking money only from individual donors, not from corporations.

So we’d classify Frontier Fairness as a super PAC that is fully disclosing its cash. Those who are financing this particular PAC include former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman at $1 million each, along with many others, mostly from out-of-state donors.

Others aren’t so clear.

Some might consider Teachers for Kennedy a murky example.

The group received $1 million from two groups affiliated with teachers unions, which could be funded by small donations from educators, though those individuals aren’t identified.

It also received $800,000 from the federal super PAC Women Vote!, which discloses its donors. A look at those donors on the FEC website reveals large donations from individuals, Emily’s List and unions. You can track the Emily’s List donors back to individuals by looking at the organization’s traditional PAC, which reports its donors to the FEC.

But the source of all those funds can’t necessarily be traced back to individual or corporate donors. For instance, the Hopewell Fund donated $25,000 to Emily’s List in January. But because it’s a nonprofit, it’s difficult to discern who the donors behind that $25,000 are. Nonprofits don’t have to disclose their donors.

We recently reported that the Sierra Club’s state-level super PAC, which is supporting Polis, was more than $63,000 in the red as of May 30 after sending a $71,000 mailing.

The group hadn’t filed an independent spending report for the TV ads as of the morning of Monday, June 11. The $600,000 for the ad buys and mailings is supposed to come from the national organization (we’ll find out next Monday). But because that organization is a nonprofit, we’ll never know whether a donor gave to the Sierra Club with the express request to spend on the Polis campaign.

That’s an instance that could well be classified as dark money, because it can’t be traced back directly to donors.

Then there’s Coloradans for Fiscal Responsibility. The group has reported spending nearly $122,000 on ads supporting GOP Treasurer Walker Stapleton in the governor’s race, although TV stations have filed contracts worth only half that so far.

But the $300,000 in the group’s account all came from one nonprofit, Colorado Taxpayers’ Advocate Fund. Because nonprofits aren’t required to publicly identify their donors, we’ll likely never find out where this money came from.

It is interesting, however, that the group’s 2016 tax filing lists Andy George as the group’s record-keeper. He’s also been cited as a spokesman for Better Colorado Now, another super PAC supporting Stapleton.

So it’s definitely “dark” money.

Finally, we’ll toss in one of this week’s new advertisers as an example.

An apparently newly formed group, Health Care FAQs, is airing at least $214,000 in TV ads in Grand Junction and Colorado Springs aimed at informing Coloradans about how the repeal of Obamacare could affect them. The ads are particularly aimed at older people, who some reports say could pay five times as much for insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.

The ad doesn’t mention candidates or political parties. But it’s only airing in GOP Congressman Scott Tipton’s congressional district.

And, again, because the group is a nonprofit, there is no way to know where its money is coming from.

So, dark money.

Photo by Jason Rogers for Creative Commons on Flickr. 


  1. As the above bar graphs make depressingly clear, two candidates – Polis and Mitchell, are attempting to buy their way into the governors’ mansion.

    As if they didn’t have a mansion already.

    I suppose that this is all legal but what type of representation will the common folks have if only gazillionaires can be elected at the local and state level?

    And how can I take seriously the pledge not to support voucher schools, or any money driven issue, from those who do not live from paycheck to paycheck like the vast majority of us do nowadays?

    Vouchers are bad for 95% of the children in our state as we continue to underfund the cornerstone of our democracy, the public school system. I was fortunate enough to have went to school back in the day when public schools still gave the best education available to me, the son of a poor family.

  2. There should be NO private or corporate money allowed in elections AT ALL. The only thing that leads to is what we have now, an oligarchy where only the rich get representation. We need a system that not only provides all the money for election campaigns, but to enforce that NO other money is to be used. Until that happens, and some candidates and their money people end up going to prison for 5 or 10 years, we will constantly be bought and sold without the chance for actual representation.

    What we have to do is get rid of ALL private and corporate money in ALL elections. Regardless of what the SCOTUS says, corporations are NOT people and there is NO reason the rich should be able to buy representation at the expense of the rest of us. This system works GREAT if you’re too rich to need help,m then you get all KINDS of help. Tax cuts, tax breaks, incentives, freaking bail outs when you lose. And THIS is the “free market”? Nonsense. This is a game thought up by the PSYCHO RICH and enforced by them to keep it in place at OUR expense. This is why children have to give up their health care but the rich DON’T have to give up their tax cuts.

    This system MUST be changed, and DRAMATICALLY. The rich have way too much already and they want even more. Time to disabuse them of this notion once and for all. What is going on here is criminal, and it’s killing people who have every right to a life.

    We are in a class war, folks, it’s time to recognize that and start fighting back for a damn change. Come on, folks, use your brains. It’s your survival on the line, here.

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