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Opinion: Bad money vs. bad money — how a Denver ballot measure could be a blueprint for getting money out of politics

“To run a major campaign in Colorado, a candidate must self-finance or be financed. Be wealthy or be bought.”

Driven by a bizarre confluence of Colorado and federal law, the money rushing into Colorado’s election has taken on a particularly unhealthy role this season. Coloradans are faced with a choice between the Anadarko-backed posterboy and a candidate that buys political offices like tech stocks.

The state and country can do something to change this political moment defined by corruption.

Jared Polis (D), an unabashed progressive, crushed his primary opposition by spending $11.3 million. Walker Stapleton (R) is backed by Better Colorado Now, a Super PAC whose major donors are billionaires and oil and natural gas companies. It has already spent over $1.7 million on Stapleton’s behalf — spending that is certain to ramp up significantly as the election approaches. Jared Polis spent $11.3 million in the primary alone.

Many Coloradans voted for Polis in the primary because they reasoned that his personal wealth would guarantee his independence. Candidates are expressly allowed to spend their own money in unlimited amounts, giving multi-millionaires and billionaires carte blanche to try to buy high political office. To run a major campaign in Colorado, a candidate must self-finance or be financed. Be wealthy or be bought.

Polis’ financial dominance in the primary was cemented by one of the strictest campaign donation limits in the country, preventing other Democrats from raising funds directly for their campaigns. In order to compete with wealthy candidates, office-seekers have to accept money from special interests and court the support of super PACs. Voters end up with the choice to support the incredibly wealthy candidate, or a candidate that has accepted money from special interests just to keep their campaign going.

There is another way, one that would undercut the effectiveness of Super PACs and special interests on Colorado elections. The measure, which is on the ballot in Denver, would substantially lower the amount that candidates could accept for their campaigns and prohibit donations from corporations and unions. Crucially, Denver would also match any contribution under $50 at a ratio of 9 to 1, as long as the candidate agreed to even lower donation limits and participated in debates. This would encourage candidates to engage with voters more directly. Freed from the perennial campaign activity of courting big money, candidates could focus on getting their message out to less wealthy donors.

This ballot measure should serve as a template for statewide election reform. While it does not directly change the law surrounding Super PACs or independent candidate spending, it does help campaigns which are not backed by a multi- millionaire or special interests to be viable. Jared Polis was able to steamroll his Democratic opposition largely because they were unable to raise enough money with Colorado’s low donation limits. The key is not to raise the limit but to empower smaller-dollar donors. The Denver ballot measure would be a good start, but to make a meaningful impact on the state’s political culture, the measure could be adapted into a state law and passed, either by the legislature or by a ballot referendum.

Research has shown that Super PAC spending in a race significantly alters the decisions of the candidate in office. Unless politicians can finance their own campaigns, they have to choose between having some influence with strings attached and having any influence. By diluting the power of Super PACs and big-dollar donors, Colorado can cut some of the strings attached to campaign donations.

Colorado’s race for governor is just the starkest example of a much broader landscape of corruption. When the people think that the only cure for corruption is to hand power to enormously wealthy politicians because of their independence, Colorado’s republic is not healthy. Coloradans are being forced to either elect an oligopoly or elect representatives that are bankrolled by one.  For Governor, the choice is between Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton. Denver might, and the state can, model a more empowering campaign finance alternative for the rest of the country, starting by taking the Denver measure statewide.

Robert Weiner was a Clinton and Bush White House spokesman, and spokesman for the House Government Operations Committee, and senior staff for Congressmen Pepper, Koch, Rangel, Conyers, and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Jared Schwartz, a Golden native, resident, and voter, is a policy analyst for Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.

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