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Super PACs spent nearly  million on Colorado’s legislative primaries

Super PACs spent nearly $6 million on Colorado’s legislative primaries

Super PACs spent nearly  million on Colorado’s legislative primaries

The non-affiliated: pure politics, no agenda.

Political groups spent nearly $6 million on Colorado’s legislative primaries this year, with the vast majority of that money going to Democratic races for state House and Senate seats by groups seeking to help more moderate candidates beat their opponents.

In 10 races in which state-level super PACs, some funded by shadowy sources, spent money to help Democratic candidates seen as more moderate, eight won. The super PACs operate independently, buying leaflets, digital ads and television time to support or oppose the candidates.

This year’s spending was more than triple the $1.8 million spent on legislative primaries in 2020. And the results of the June 25 primary will help shape the Democratic-controlled legislature for at least the next two years.

Here’s a more detailed analysis of spending in this year’s legislative primaries:

The groups that supported the more moderate Democrats and where their money came from

Of the $5.7 million spent by state-level super PACs on this year’s congressional primaries, 80% went to Democratic contests.

That makes sense, given that Democrats hold a supermajority in the House and a near-supermajority in the Senate, meaning the primary results have the power to guide policy at the Colorado Capitol. Some progressive measures considered by the legislature this year survived or died by a single Democratic vote.

Kent Thiry, the wealthy former chief executive of Denver-based dialysis giant DaVita, accounted for nearly a quarter of the money behind those PACs.

Thiry donated $1.24 million to Let Colorado Vote Action, a group formed just before the primary that spent its money on television and digital ads supporting more moderate candidates running in the Democratic and Republican congressional primaries. The committee was the biggest spender among super PACs trying to influence voters in this year’s House primary.

The money was intended to “defend the majority of the centre,” Thiry told The Sun in a statement last month.

Let Colorado Vote Action helped candidates like Democrat Cecelia Espenoza, a retired federal immigration judge, beat Rep. Tim Hernandez, who was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, in House District 4 in northwest Denver, and Aurora Public School Board member Michael Carter, a Democrat, in his primary race for House District 36 against Bryan Lindstrom, an APS teacher who was endorsed by the DSA. Both Espenoza and Carter won.

Thiry also donated $60,000 to the Ready Colorado Action Fund and $35,000 to Weld Strong, two statewide Republican super PACs.

However, the origin of much of the money spent by political committees remains unclear.

For example, the political action committee A Whole Lot of People for Change spent more than $1 million supporting nine more moderate Democratic candidates, all but one of whom won. It was the second-biggest political group spender in Colorado’s legislative primaries this year.

The group received $251,000 from Moving Colorado Forward and $235,000 from the Colorado Democracy Action Fund, two other statewide super PACs largely funded by Education Reform Now Advocacy and the Colorado League of Charter Schools, nonprofits that do not disclose their donors.

A Whole Lot of People for Change also received $445,000 from One Main Street Colorado, a super PAC funded by a nonprofit of the same name that also does not disclose its donors.

The stated mission of A Whole Lot of People for Change is to support “pragmatic candidates…who believe in rebuilding Colorado’s middle class.”

The group supported Democratic primary candidates Espenoza and Carter, as well as Lakewood City Councilwoman Rebekah Stewart in House District 30, former Thornton City Councilwoman Jacque Phillips in House District 31 and state Rep. Judy Amabile in Senate District 18.

Let Colorado Vote Action also endorsed Stewart and Amabile. The Denver branch of the Democratic Socialists of America opposed Stewart and recommended that its members vote for her opponent, Kyra deGruy Kennedy.

The only losing primary candidate endorsed by A Whole Lot of People For Change was Democrat Ethnie Treick, a former lobbyist for Xcel Energy, who was defeated in the House District 52 primary in Fort Collins by tax attorney Yara Zokaie. Let Colorado Vote Action also endorsed Treick.

Another statewide super PAC, Representation Matters, spent $656,000 supporting Aurora attorney Idris Keith against state Rep. Mike Weissman in Senate District 28.

A photo of Idris Keith, wearing a black T-shirt and hat, next to a photo of state Rep. Mike Weissman, wearing a suit and bolo tie.
From left: Aurora attorney Idris Keith and state Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora lawmaker who is also an attorney, compete against each other in the Senate District 28 Democratic primary. (Campaign material, collage by The Colorado Sun)

The group’s $661,000 in funding came from Brighter Colorado Futures 527. That committee received $680,000 from a federal super PAC called Democracy Wins, which won’t report its funding until July 15. Another $25,000 came from the nonprofit Brighter Colorado Futures, which doesn’t disclose its donors.

Keith, who was endorsed by Let Colorado Vote Action, lost to Weissman by 6 percentage points.

The nonprofit One Main Street Colorado was the second-largest super PAC donor, donating $800,000 to its namesake super PAC and another $57,000 to Servicios Sigue Action Fund. The nonprofit does not disclose its donors.

Andrew Short, the political consultant who runs the nonprofit, said in an email that the group is “focused on expanding the middle class and making Colorado the small business hub of the nation.”

Short defended the group’s decision not to disclose who its donors are, saying they do so to “protect our supporters from potential harassment by groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party.”

Short said the group has support from labor groups, but records show it also received donations in 2022 from Xcel Energy, the Metro Denver Apartment Association and the Associated General Contractors of Colorado.

Who supported the most liberal candidates in the Democratic legislative primaries?

While much of the money spent in Colorado’s Democratic congressional primary came from groups supporting more moderate candidates, their more liberal opponents also received some help.

Colorado Labor Action, funded by several unions, spent $728,000 to support five Democratic candidates in the primaries, only two of whom (Zokaie and Weissman) won. That group’s money came from unions such as the Colorado Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFL-CIO.

Colorado Labor Action endorsed Hernandez and Lindstrom, as well as Rep. Julia Marvin, a candidate recommended by the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America who lost to Phillips in House District 31.

The Colorado Working Families Party super PAC, another group that backed more liberal candidates in the congressional primary, spent only about $50,000 supporting just three candidates: Jovita Schiffer, who lost to Ambile, Zokaie and Rep. Junie Joseph, D-Boulder, who beat her primary challenger.

Wendy Howell, state party director, called Short’s allegations about WFP members attacking One Main Street Colorado donors absurd.

“The only thing money gets them is access,” Howell said. “And time is as valuable on Capitol Hill as anything else.”

Conclusions on expenditure and results

It would be easy to point to money as the decisive factor in all competitions, but the data does not fully bear this out.

In Senate District 28, where most of the statewide super PAC money was spent, about 70% of the $1 million spent in the race went to defeating Weissman, but he still beat Keith.

In the Democratic primary in House District 52, which ranked fourth in terms of spending by political groups, Zokaie defeated Treick. About $270,000 was spent to defeat Zokaie, while about $240,000 was spent to help her.

But it would also be wrong to completely dismiss the effect of external spending.

In races where one candidate benefited from spending by a political group and the other received no help, the latter always lost. They include Rep. Elisabeth Epps in House District 6, Westminster City Councilman Obi Ezeadi in Senate District 19 and DeGruy Kennedy in House District 30.

The Senate chamber at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Having friends on Capitol Hill also helped the winners.

Many of the winning candidates had more support from sitting lawmakers and elected leaders than their opponents. Denver attorney Sean Camacho, for example, received endorsements from a group of top Democrats, including Gov. Jared Polis, House Speaker Julie McCluskie and Senate President Steve Fenberg, while his opponent, Epps, did not list any such support on his website.

Amabile and Rep. Lindsey Daugherty defeated their challengers in Senate District 18 and 19, respectively, after receiving endorsements from a broad spectrum of Democrats.

Tim Hernandez in House District 4 was one of the exceptions to that trend, but he was targeted in a $445,000 super PAC spend and received critical press coverage, including for refusing to condemn the Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct. 7.

Another finding is that the two Democratic representatives appointed by the vacancy committee who faced primary challenges — Hernandez and Marvin — lost to the candidates they defeated in their vacancy elections.

There has been a lot of attention in recent years on legislative vacancy committees and whether they truly reflect their districts. Hernandez was elected to his seat last year by a 66-member Democratic vacancy committee. Marvin was elected to her seat this year by a 17-member Democratic vacancy committee.