The $18.4 million Jared Polis has spent from his own pocket to become Colorado governor is setting statewide records and drawing complaints from his opponent that the Democrat is trying to buy the election.
But so far, the self-funding is relatively moderate compared to other gubernatorial candidates around the nation.
Polis ranks fifth in the nation in the 2018 election for self-funding through Sept. 13, according to an analysis by The Colorado Sun.
And his spending-per-vote in the governor’s primary ranks sixth in the nation at $39.79, according to the analysis which relied on data from the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Four candidates in Illinois and Florida outspent Polis in the primary election but only two of those top spenders won. So it’s possible that Polis would move into the No. 3 spot by Election Day. He faces Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who has spent $1 million of his own money in the Nov. 6 general election to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
But it’s unlikely he would eclipse Jay Pritzker, the Democratic candidate in Illinois, who spent $106.5 million to date. He is challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“This year definitely seems to be over the top in several states,” said Denise Roth Barber, managing director at Money in Politics. “In Illinois, what you have are two candidates with extremely deep pockets who are spending just enormous amounts of their own money. Typically in a race, you’ll only see one self-funded candidate.”
Former Hewlett-Packard president Meg Whitman, a Republican, holds the record for self-funding in a governor’s race. She spent more than $144 million of her own cash in her 2010 primary win and subsequent general election loss to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in California.
Here’s a look at the top 20 gubernatorial self-funders overall since 2002. Polis ranked 17th overall after his primary win.
A look at spending per vote
California, Illinois and Florida are considerably larger states, with millions more voters than Colorado. So to make a more even playing field, it’s worth looking at spending per-vote.
Polis spent about $40 for each of his 283,340 primary votes. That’s considerably less than the $154 per vote that Rauner spent to narrowly defeat a challenge from within his own party.
Billionaire Jeff Greene, a Democratic candidate in Florida, spent the most of anyone in history on a per-vote basis at $247. He lost the primary, finishing a distant fourth place.
Here’s a look at spending per primary vote among those who’ve spent the most on their campaigns.
Polis v. Polis
Polis spent twice as much as his most recently contested campaign — the 2nd Congressional District primary in 2008 — but it’s not even close to the per-vote total in that race.
Facing two opponents in the Democratic-leaning 2nd District primary, Polis spent a whopping $266 for each of his 20,493 votes. He defeated former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald by about 1,900 votes and went on to win the general election handily.
That wasn’t Polis’ closest campaign, however. The tightest election he faced came in his initial outing, when he ran for an at-large Colorado Board of Education seat in 2000. He spent $1.3 million — an unheard-of amount at the time for that race — and won by 90 votes in a recount.
It still only added up to $1.65 a vote.
Here’s a look at Polis’ self-funding in his various races, with total self-funding and spending per vote.
What does it all mean?
Polis is the primary donor to his campaign, putting in 98 percent of his total funds. Stapleton put more than $1 million into his four-way primary contest. That accounted for 44 percent of the Republican’s primary fundraising.
Success by self-funders isn’t always guaranteed. Of the top 20 gubernatorial self-spenders, 13 lost in the primary or general election.
That isn’t surprising, said Adam Brown, a political scientist at Brigham Young University who has studied self-funding candidates.
“Self-financing is often a sign of weakness,” Brown wrote in an email. “An awful lot of campaign donors are uninterested in giving money to candidates who have no chance of winning.”
But, Brown wrote, there are exceptions.
“Some self-financed candidates could easily raise money from donors but choose not to,” he wrote. “Think (Arnold) Schwarzenegger in his first run in California, who chose not to do fundraising so he could claim that nobody ‘owns’ him.”
Polis is pursuing a similar tactic, by limiting individual contributions to $100 and rejecting PAC donations to his campaign. However, he is helping to raise bigger amounts from wealthy donors for the state Democratic Party’s joint fundraising effort.
Mara Sheldon, Polis’ spokeswoman, said it takes more than money, pointing to the nearly $5 million that Republican businessman Victor Mitchell spent in a losing bid in his primary.
“If all self-funders won, then we would be running against Victor Mitchell,” she said. “You have to have plans, you have to have policies, you have to have ideas — and Jared has all that.”
Stapleton campaign manager Michael Fortney said Polis has rarely faced competitive general elections.
“Congressman Polis has bought himself every election he has ever won, but he has never actually bought himself a competitive general election that he didn’t outspend his opponent by 100x,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Polis’ big spending is adding ammunition to a Colorado ballot initiative, Amendment 75, previously known as Initiative 173, that would allow opponents of big-spending candidates to raise five times more from individual donors and political committees than Colorado’s conservative campaign finance law currently allows. That’s currently $1,150 for gubernatorial candidates. The idea is to remain competitive against self-funders.