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

The latest cash haul disclosures in Colorado’s closely watched governor’s race show more than $20 million flowing into the campaigns — but most of it is coming from the pockets of the Democratic candidate.

With about 60 days until the Nov. 6 election, the contest is likely to become the most expensive governor’s race in state history, if a lopsided spending affair. Democrat Jared Polis from Boulder, who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, is self-funding his bid. The internet entrepreneur poured more than $12 million of his own cash into his successful primary campaign and this month he stuffed another $5.5 million into his run against Stapleton.

On the Republican side, Stapleton, a Bush-family relative and two-term state treasurer who always has been able to attract big money to his campaigns, has spent a fraction of his own money compared to Polis, but still anted up about $1 million. Within the past month or so he was able to raise a little more than $340,000 for his campaign, bringing his total haul so far to about $3 million. But he is also benefiting from a new fundraising style, too, setting up a joint fundraising committee that allows individual donors to write bigger checks.

Candidates for governor in Colorado have to show the public who is ponying up to help them win and how they are spending the money they raise. Colorado has relatively low campaign contribution limits compared to other states, and corporations cannot give money directly to candidates as they can elsewhere, though political action committees and small donor committees can throw in some dough. The most an individual can give directly to a campaign here is $1,500, but there are ways individuals can end up giving more to help or hurt a candidate. Independent expenditure committees and 527 political organizations are both allowed to accept huge contributions, with loose disclosure rules. More than $22 million has been pumped into Colorado’s election through these groups.

Related: Super PAC money flooding into Colorado state races

Stapleton is also benefiting from the Republican Governor’s Association, which is spending more than $1 million for TV ads.

Here are some takeaways from the latest public reports that cover July 28 to Aug. 29.

Polis has so far put in about $18.4 million of his own money into his campaign. That figure blows away self-funding totals for every other candidate in Colorado history.

Polis has from the beginning of his bid refused any individual donation greater than $100. His campaign has returned money to a handful of people who’ve tried to give more.

Of Polis’s individual donors who identified their professions to the Secretary of State (doing so is optional), many are teachers or people who work elsewhere in the field of education. He can also count many real estate professionals and lawyers among his donor base.

The self-made multi-millionaire who is running on a platform of free statewide universal kindergarten, a renewable energy plan and single-payer health care, blew away previous state records for self-funding in a primary race, contributing more than $10 million of personal cash prior to the June primary, in which he handily defeated former state Sen. Mike Johnston, ex- state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.

Since then, he’s already dumped more than $8 million into his campaign against Stapleton.

The latest disclosure shows Polis has spent more than $4.1 million buying media advertising, the bulk of which came from a roughly $3 million singular drop on TV ads. The majority of his spending outside of media buys goes toward payroll and consulting services, according to public data.

While Polis has, according to campaign finance reports, kept to his promise not to take in more than $100 from any individual, a super PAC called Bold Colorado is working on his behalf. Since the primary, Bold Colorado has spent close to $200,000.

The latest reports show the biggest donation to that PAC came from the marijuana business alliance Colorado Leads, which gave $40,000. Blair Richardson of Denver’s Bow River Capital Partners gave $25,000, as did Charif Souki, the co-founder of Cheniere Energy. Robert Hernreich, a part owner of the Sacramento Kings, gave $15,000. A New York consultant named Tonio Burgos gave $10,000, as did Avon real estate company founder Harry Frampton, Denver-based arts benefactors and philanthropists Seeme and Malik Hasan. Judith Zee Steinberg, an Aspen philanthropist with strong ties to the local ballet scene, gave $5,000.  

So who is benefiting from the Polis war chest? Over the past month, his campaign paid a Philadelphia political firm called The Campaign Group around $4 million for advertising. He also bought an email list from his former Democratic primary rival Kennedy’s campaign for $25,000.

Stapleton has a new fundraising group with family, contractors, energy execs, and investors chipping in

To help out in the make-it-rain department, team Stapleton has helped set up a new fundraising apparatus called The Stapleton Victory Fund to help elect him and his platform of defending the oil-and-gas industry, ending so-called sanctuary cities, and re-bonding gas tax revenue to pay for infrastructure.

The Federal Election Commission calls the fund a joint fundraising committee, which can be created by two or more candidates, PACs or political groups that share the cost of fundraising and split the proceeds. The Stapleton Victory Fund operates along with the Colorado Republican Committee, Stapleton for Colorado, a Colorado GOP PAC, a Colorado GOP independent expenditure committee, and the Colorado Republican Committee State Political Party Committee.

The reason someone might set up such a fund is so individual donors can write one large check, which the committee could then divide among other groups while keeping in mind contribution limits for each, says Brendan Quinn of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. He says it can make holding fundraisers easier.

Stapleton’s victory fund has taken in about $346,000 so far.

One of the largest donors to the Stapleton Victory Fund is Walker Stapleton’s mother, Dorothy, who gave the fund nearly $15,000 according to federal records.

Leaders in the construction and contracting business ponied up, too, including construction company president Jim Johnson, contractor Jeff Wenaas, construction company CEO Joe Slavik and construction company president Tom Roche, who all gave about $14,000 apiece. Developer Walter Koelbel gave $13,000, as did Colorado Springs area developer David Jenkins.

Money manager Scott Schoelzel and his wife Katie each gave $14,000. Platte River Equity founder Lanny Martin and his wife Sharon each gave about $14,000, as did former FirstBank CEO John Ikard and investment firm founder Charlie Gallagher. Investor Ed McVaney and his wife Carole gave a combined $25,000.

A couple oil-and-gas executives also pitched in, like George Solich, CEO of FourPoint Energy, and Don Law of Prima Exploration, who each gave about $14,000.

Also helping Stapleton on the big-money front is an independent expenditure committee called Better Colorado Now, which can raise unlimited amounts of money. In August, DCP Midstream, a large natural gas processing company, gave the group $250,000, records show. Oil and natural gas producer Crestone Peak Resources gave $200,000. FourPoint Energy’s Solich gave the group $100,000. David Merage of Consolidated Investment Group gave $25,000 to the group.

Meanwhile, individuals and groups gave directly to Stapleton’s campaign in Colorado to the tune of about $343,000 within the past month or so. One of them was GOP Congressman Mike Coffman who maxed out with a $1,500 check.

The Colorado Republican Party gave Stapleton $50,000.

A group representing Realtors gave $12,500 and a contractors group gave $3,000. The Association of Mechanical and Plumbing Contractors PAC kicked in, too.

Brian Watson, the Republican running for Stapleton’s current job as treasurer, gave a maximum contribution of $1,500, as did Christian Anschutz, a longtime Stapleton donor who sits on The Gazette’s editorial board in Colorado Springs.

When it comes to what Stapleton is doing with the money in his actual campaign, if you see a yard sign, know that he spent at least $23,000 for sign printing — his largest expense in the past month.