Swing State Confidential: Colorado–the Wild Wild West

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Over the last several weeks, the Colorado Senate race became the poster race of the outrageous amounts of money pouring into politics from outside groups, attracting more than $32 million in spending–more than any other race in the country. A close look at the data reveals some telling points on how this political spending worked on the ground.

What was new this year in Colorado was not outside spending. In 2008, the Colorado Senate race also attracted money from outside groups, such as 527 political organizations and labor unions. And many of the groups spending in 2010 also were in the fray in 2008, albeit some wearing different legal costumes. A good chunk of the money spent this year was in the form of “dark money”–money spent by groups that do not disclose donors; however, the major group doing so also took out its wallet in 2008.

What was new was a substantially higher amount of spending–$32 million vs. $20.4 million; a harder edge on many of the group’s ads; and that groups could (and did) raise their cash directly from corporations and unions for such ads.

Here are some notable trends from Colorado:

  • The biggest gorilla in the room. American Crossroads, the “super PAC” founded this year with the help of GOP strategist Karl Rove, bet big in Colorado. A creature of the new regime after the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, American Crossroads reported spending $5.9 million on independent expenditures in the Senate race to help Buck’s candidacy. That’s more than twice as much as any other non-party organization, and one-and-a-half times as much as Ken Buck raised for his own campaign. It wasn’t all that long ago that this kind of money was enough to win a Senate seat. The group has raised its cash from a mix of wealthy individuals and corporations—the latter of which would have been impossible before Citizens United.
  • Lots of “Dark money.” Some $5.4 million of the money flowing into Colorado was “dark money”—money spent by organizations that do not publicly disclose donors to the Federal Election Commission. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a 501(C)6 organization, reported spending $2.4 million on issue ads. Back in 2008, the group reported $1.5 million. The conservative Americans for Job Security, a 501(c)6, reported spending $976,000 on issue ads in the race (a substantial portion in the primary). Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, a 501(c)4, reported spending $878,500. Technically the money went to issue ads rather than to oppose or support a candidate. However this clip is openly critical of Buck for saying that voters should choose him because he doesn’t “wear high heels.”  Nonprofit groups like these have been emboldened this year to spend more aggressively on political activity; some members of Congress and watchdog groups have called for investigations.
  • Meet the new folks, (sort of) the same as the old folks. The NEA Advocacy Fund reported making $1.9 million on hard-hitting independent expenditures opposing Buck. The group’s main source of cash appears to be its parent organization, the National Education Association. Spending on direct advocacy ads funded by unions would not have been possible before Citizens United. While the union also reported spending big in the 2008 Senate race here–$925,000—most of that money went to electioneering communications, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ditto the conservative Club for Growth Action, a new super PAC that reported spending $997,000 on issue ads. In 2008, most of the money reported by the group under a different guise went to issue advocacy. Overall, 15 out of 22 of the most generous outside spenders in the Colorado race used their cash for independent expenditures rather than issue ads.

What effect all this spending had on the actual outcome of the race is debatable. Bennet raised far more cash for his campaign fund than Buck did for his. The independent expenditures favored Buck, but not by a large margin. In the end, the Bennet’s victory was decided by fewer than 16,000 votes.

But one thing is for sure: the onslaught of spending here was like going back to Colorado’s Wild West roots. All these groups were grabbing for the biggest gun in town, and the sheriff wasn’t paying much attention. And it was just practice for what we can expect come 2012. As goes Colorado, so goes the nation.

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