Cash roils race for Eagle Co.’s seat in Congress |

Cash roils race for Eagle Co.’s seat in Congress

Harriet Hamilton
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado “The Democratic contest to replace Mark Udall as Eagle County’s U.S. representative continues to attract both big money and controversy.

Personal contributions by candidate Jared Polis to his own campaign triggered the “Millionaires’ Amendment” ” a feature of 2002’s McCain-Feingold election reform bill designed to level the playing field when the very wealthy seek congressional office.

According to the Congressional Quarterly, the Democratic primary race in Colorado’s second district, which includes Summit, Eagle, Clear Creek and Grand counties, as well as parts of several other Front Range counties and the city of Boulder, is among the most expensive in the nation.

Reasons for the high cost of the race are varied, said Seth Masket said, a professor of political science at the University of Denver.

“It’s an open congressional seat, and those don’t come along very often,” he said. “And it’s a pretty safe Democratic district. You’d expect it to be very sought-after.”

Democrat Udall, who has represented the district since 1999, opted not to seek re-election in order to run for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard.

The three Democratic candidates ” multi-millionaire entrepreneur and former Colorado Board of Education Chairman Polis, former state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald and Boulder environmentalist Will Shafroth ” will compete for the party’s nomination in the Aug. 12 primary. Between them, their campaigns have raised nearly $3 million ” an unusual amount for this early in a primary race.

“Part of the reason (for the big money) is that you have Polis in the race,” Masket said. “This kind of thing happens when there’s an insider favorite and a challenger with a lot of personal funds.”

He called Fitz-Gerald’s the “favorite” with Democratic Party elites and segments of the party’s traditional power base, such as organized labor.

The Millionaires’ Amendment, triggered by Polis’ latest donation of nearly $200,000 to himself, increases the limit on individual contributions to other candidates from $2,300 to $6,900.

But Polis’ heavy personal financing of his own campaign will raise the limit only for Shafroth, who has so far trailed the field in fundraising. Under the terms of the rule, former state Senate President Fitz-Gerald had raised too much money by year-end 2007 for her campaign to be able to benefit from Polis’ current level of self-financing.

With a total personal contribution of nearly $400,000, Polis easily passed the amendment’s $350,000 threshold.

Only about a half dozen congressional races around the country trigger the Millionaires’ Amendment each election cycle, said campaign finance expert Brian Svoboda, of the Perkins Coie Political Law Group.

In 2004, personal contributions to his campaign by Senate candidate and millionaire Pete Coors allowed his opponent Ken Salazar to increase the limit on individual contributions, but not until much later in the race.

Polis’ early triggering of the rule has led to speculation about the financial health of his campaign. According to his most recent Federal Election Commission disclosure filings, he’s been spending money much faster than he’s been collecting it. In the fourth quarter of 2007, his campaign raised a little more than $250,000, but spent nearly twice that amount.

Polis’ most recent contributions drew fire from the Fitz-Gerald campaign, with accusations of the candidate’s failure to honor a nearly year-old pledge to keep under a $350,000 limit. The Polis campaign responded by pointing out Fitz-Gerald’s fundraising advantage among political action committees.

Colorado’s 2nd District is no stranger to unbalanced amounts of personal campaign contribution. In 1998 ” the last year an incumbent wasn’t running ” multi-millionaire Republican Robert Greenlee spent more than $1 million of his personal funds, but lost to Udall, who gave his campaign $55,000.

Former state Rep. Gary Lindstrom, who represented Eagle and Summit counties, acknowledged the need for the Millionaire’s Amendment, but bemoaned the effect of big money on political contests.

“In my opinion, things have gotten completely out of control,” he said. “You either have to have a lot of personal wealth, or you have to spend all your time fundraising, instead of focusing on the issues.”

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