Candidates debate ‘dark money’ in Eagle County’s state legislative races
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The specter of outside “dark money” from unknown, deep-pocketed donors once again looms over local state legislative races impacting Eagle County, and candidates for both major parties recently expressed frustration and promised to do something about it if elected on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan, of Vail, has outraised Republican challenger Olen Lund, of Paonia, more than 10-to-1 ($228,219 to $20,955) in the seven-county Senate District 5 race that includes Eagle County — a key contest as Democrats look to take back the Senate.
But that’s all money from donors whose names are fully disclosed on the Secretary of State TRACER website. A lot more money has poured into the Senate District 5 race from 501(c)4 social groups set up for “educational” purposes and funded by undisclosed corporate and individual donors.
“The hardest story to tell is there’s dark money in every campaign; that’s just the nature of where we are after Citizens United,” Donovan said. “But where voters should be concerned is when the only communication that’s being done on behalf of a candidate is on the dark-money side.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission ruling of 2010 held that the First Amendment protects unlimited campaign spending by for-profit and nonprofit corporations as free speech, although candidates are not allowed to coordinate with those outside groups. Donors are only required to disclose contributions to the IRS.
“It’s all very frustrating,” Donovan said of Lund’s limited spending on disclosed campaign ads but huge dark-money footprint. “Who is that candidate beholden to and why do they trust people they supposedly aren’t coordinating with to tell their entire story of what they stand for?”
Lund points out that dark-money groups have also sent out mailers opposing him and backing Donovan, and he denies any coordination with groups supporting him.
“All this stuff (mailers) shows up and I have absolutely no control over it,” Lund said. “I don’t know who it is, and I don’t know what’s going on. The current election law is such that this can be done, and I can know nothing about it. There’s nothing that I can do.”
Groups such as Americans for Prosperity — backed by the conservative fossil-fuel billionaire Koch brothers — have fired off mailers supporting Lund, while Conservation Colorado and other environmental nonprofits have gone to bat for Donovan. Conservation Colorado, the state’s leading environmental group, has the backing of billionaire climate-change crusader Tom Steyer.
But then there are other groups with lower-profile and less transparent financing, such as the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund and the Senate Majority Fund, also backing Lund’s campaign. Lund said he’d support legislation to make elections more transparent.
“I would think transparency is a good thing. I’m not for anything being done in a hidden way,” Lund said, lamenting changes to campaign-finance laws in recent years. “If it all came through a candidate committee and was all reported that way, then it would be transparent. That’s the way it used to be, and I think that would be better.”
Donovan also supports tougher disclosure for outside groups: “Anything that brings transparency into the election process is good for democracy.”
Phil Weiser, the Democratic candidate for Colorado attorney general, said his No. 2 priority after reining in the opioid epidemic is daylighting dark money in Colorado elections. He supports the Colorado Legislature passing a law similar to Montana’s 2015 DISCLOSE Act.
“Dark money is about democracy; it’s not about party politics. We should win or lose elections fair and square without dark money, without gerrymandering, without voter suppression, without cyberattacks,” Weiser told Colorado Politics, pointing to undisclosed millions being spent on his GOP opponent, George Brauchler, by the Republican Attorneys General Association.
Brauchler scoffs at the notion of dark money unfairly targeting Weiser.
“To suggest that, ‘Hey, I’m really scared of the money that’s coming into this race and where it’s coming from,’ one, I can’t control any third-party efforts, and my guess is the Democratic Attorneys General Association — that has called Colorado one of their key pick-up states — they’re going to invest heavily in this race, too,” Brauchler responded.
Montana’s battle against dark money in politics has some interesting connections to Colorado, including attack mailers aimed at Donovan’s predecessor, Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz, who later came into possession of a treasure trove of coordinated attack mailers found in a Denver-area meth house. Those mailers, in part, led to the DISCLOSE Act and several PBS films.
But for any dark-money disclosure bill to pass out of the Colorado Legislature it will likely take Democrats holding the House and regaining the Senate, which the GOP controls, 18-17. Current House District 26 (Eagle and Routt counties) Democratic state Rep. Dylan Roberts, of Eagle, saw his Stand by Your Ad Act die in a Senate kill committee last legislative session.
‘Stand by your ad act’
“Of course I would support a law similar to Montana’s or any other effort to increase transparency in campaign contributions and spending,” Roberts said. “Every single one of my donations is disclosed and comes with a name, address and phone number for any voter or member of the public to have access to.
“I not only voted in favor of but co-sponsored a ‘Stand By Your Ad Act’ last session at the legislature, which would increase dark money accountability.”
Roberts said he has not seen any dark money being spent in his race against Republican Nicki Mills, of Eagle-Vail. He has outraised Mills $96,260 to $18,772, according to TRACER, although Mills also has loaned her own campaign another $24,000 so far, for a total of $42,772.
Mills said she’d be open to changing Colorado campaign-finance laws if she’s elected Tuesday.
“I would prefer allowing contributions only from individuals,” Mills said. “I would consider raising contribution limits above the $400 per person. But I think it’s a travesty when so much money is raised outside the state or from groups that we have no idea who provided funds to the group.”
Mills agrees that there apparently hasn’t been any dark money spent in the House District 26 race, although she points out that a considerable amount of Roberts’ fully disclosed campaign funding has come from outside the district. Asked about her self-funding disparity, Mills said, “It’s painful.”
“Going into this race, before fully committing, I used the words, ‘I’m not going to pay to play,’” Mills said. “I did not know how much this was going to cost, and I am so committed that I have put in what to me is a fortune and it’s because I’m dedicated and willing to do whatever it takes.”