Political spending in Colorado’s pivotal 2018 midterm election topped $239 million, far more than any prior year, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports filed with the Colorado secretary of state on Thursday.
The previous record was $155 million in 2014.
Several competitive state Senate races, a handful of high-stakes ballot initiatives and a governor’s contest between two wealthy men led to unprecedented spending ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
The investment in ads, consultants, pollsters, campaign literature and signs paid off for several top spenders.
Protect Colorado, an oil and gas industry-backed group, spent more than $37 million in a successful campaign to defeat new oil and gas regulations. The group spent far more than any other issue committee, according to finance reports. So-called issue committees, which have virtually no limits on how much money they can spend or accept, spent about $78 million this year on ballot initiatives.
Governor-elect Jared Polis dropped more than $23 million of his own money on his campaign, outspending his Republican rival State Treasurer Walker Stapleton six to one.
Polis won the election by more than 10 percentage points.
Coloradans for Fairness, an independent expenditure committee, spent about $8 million backing Democrat candidates in competitive state Senate races. Outside groups backing Republican candidates for the Senate, including the Senate Majority Fund, spent about $6 million. Independent expenditure committees can accept and spend virtually unlimited amounts. In all, these committees spent about $77 million.
Nonprofits that do not have to disclose their spending or donors, earning them the title “dark money” groups, also spent money on key Senate races. These nonprofits include the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, which backs Republicans, and Colorado Values Project, which backs Democrats.
Five Democratic women running in battleground Senate districts out-raised their Republican rivals nearly three to one.
They went on to win their seats. And the sweep earned the Democratic Party a three-vote edge in the state Senate. When the legislature gavels in on Jan. 4, Democrats will control the House, Senate and governor’s mansion. In a resounding blue wave year, Democratic candidates also won every constitutional statewide office, securing one-party control not seen since the New Deal era.
Several big spenders lost campaigns, too.
Voters rejected a proposed sales tax hike to pay for transportation projects. The group backing the tax, Coloradans for Coloradans, spent $6.7 million backing the ballot initiative.
Voters also shot down an initiative that would drastically alter private property rights, known as Amendment 74. The measure was backed by the oil and gas industry-supported Committee for Colorado’s Shared Heritage, which spent $7.8 million promoting the initiative. The group opposing the initiative, Save Our Neighborhoods, supported by environmental groups and the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors, spent about $6.6 million.
In the race for Colorado’s next attorney general, Colorado Freedom IEC, an independent expenditure committee backed almost entirely by the Republican Attorneys General Association, spent $5.1 million to boost the Republican candidate George Brauchler, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, over the Democratic candidate Phil Weiser. Weiser, a former law dean at the University of Colorado, won by about 6 percentage points.
Political spending aside, it was a record turnout year.
According to the secretary of state, about 63 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots this year, or 2,583,580 Coloradans. The state was second only to Minnesota in turnout.
Robert Duffy, a political scientist at Colorado State University, said political spending can be viewed as a form of political participation. Money, he said, helps people get their message out.
“Stakes are high. People are motivated. Fear is a good motivator on Election Day. It opens peoples’ pocketbooks,” he said.
But there is an interesting question, he said, about the effect of this spending after the election is over.
“Do candidates owe something public policy-wise to the people who funded their campaigns?” he asked.
And because some nonprofits do not have to disclose their donors, he said it can be difficult to trace the money. This “makes it hard to then try to figure out the accountability question.”