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Politics and Government

In the battle for the Colorado Senate, Dem candidates raise more money, but cash from outside groups gives GOP the edge

The most expensive of 17 state Senate races is between Republican incumbent Beth Martinez Humenik and Democratic challenger Faith Winter in District 24

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Republican state Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik and her Democratic challenger, state Rep. Faith Winter, are hustling — ringing doorbells and hoping to win votes — in a race that may determine the balance of power in Colorado.

But they’re not the only ones knocking on doors or sending mailers. Outside groups are spending heavily in Senate District 24, including nearly $800,000 on cable TV ads.

“I knew there would be a lot of mail, and I thought there would be online ads for YouTube and Hulu and things like that,” Winter said. “I wasn’t expecting the cable ad buy that we’ve seen.”

The state Senate race in Adams County is perceived as the softest spot for Democrats looking to flip a seat and regain control of the chamber, where Republicans hold a one-seat advantage. Martinez Humenik won the open seat in 2014 by fewer than 900 votes — surprising even Republicans. And the stakes are evident with all the big money flooding the district to influence voters.

Winter is significantly outraising Martinez Humenik, by nearly $360,000 to $102,000, according to campaign finance reports filed Oct. 1. But Republican political groups have reported spending nearly $723,000 in the Adams County district, compared with $425,000 spent by Democratic groups through the same time period.

The race is reflective of the larger trend in five key 2018 Senate races. The Democratic candidates are raising more than their GOP counterparts, but Republican outside political groups are getting more cash than Democratic committees to win the money race.

The Colorado Senate chamber on Sept. 18, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Through the start of October, Democratic and Republican candidates in the five Colorado contests have thus far raised more than $2 million and spent about $830,000.

Outside groups and candidates are poised to spend more than $7.5 million — and likely much more — by the time votes are counted. Nearly $6.3 million is already spent on those races, with at least another $1.3 million in candidate cash at the ready.

Republicans are on pace to spend at least $4.2 million, with Democrats trailing at $3.3 million, according to an analysis by The Colorado Sun that combines candidate and outside money.

It’s a competition among well-heeled outside interests, with oil and gas interests backing Republicans and a coalition of education, unions, gun control advocates and others backing Democrats.

Nearly two-thirds of the outside money that can be tracked is coming from Republican interests who are trying to beat back the Democratic challenge. 

There are 17 Senate seats up for grabs.

Based on the money being spent, District 24 is the epicenter of the battle. About $5.4 million in outside money has been spent in the five key districts and 30 percent of it — or about $1.6 million — has targeted District 24.

The money is paying for cable TV and online advertising, as well as a host of mailers arriving almost daily in the mailboxes of targeted voters.

Much of the money is coming from state-level super PACs, which can take unlimited donations and spend unlimited amounts as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates or political parties.

But some of the money — it’s impossible to know how much — is coming from nonprofits that don’t have to disclose donors or spending, i.e., dark money.

In addition to the Adams County seat, the other competitive districts where the two parties are focusing their efforts are:

  • Senate District 16, which includes western Jefferson County and parts of Boulder, Gilpin and Denver counties. Republican state Sen. Tim Neville, one of the most conservative members in the chamber, faces Democrat Tammy Story, who helped lead the 2015 Jefferson County School Board recall elections.
  • Senate District 20, which covers Wheat Ridge and Arvada in Jefferson County. Democratic state Rep. Jessie Danielson is competing with Republican businesswoman Christine Jensen for an open seat left by the term-limited Cheri Jahn, who was elected a Democrat but turned unaffiliated.
  • Senate District 22, centered in Lakewood in Jefferson County. Democratic state Rep. Brittany Pettersen faces Republican Tony Sanchez for the seat held by Sen. Andy Kerr, a term-limited Democrat.
  • Senate District 5, situated in the state’s central-mountain areas. Republicans are targeting incumbent Democrat state Sen. Kerry Donovan’s reelection bid. She faces former Delta County Commissioner Olen Lund.


Major interests flood races with outside spending

Outside of door knocks and mailers, the fight for the state Senate is taking a prominent role on local television.

The total spent on TV in the races thus far nears $2.5 million, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission and Secretary of State reports. That includes:

  • Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, a dark money nonprofit, spent $621,730 on cable TV ads in Senate Districts 5, 16, 20 and 24 from Aug. 22 through Sept. 14. The group is affiliated with another nonprofit, Colorado Concern, which represents business interests. As nonprofits, these groups don’t need to reveal their donors.
  • Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government is spending nearly $710,000 on cable ads in Senate Districts 16, 22, 24 and and 20 from Sept. 11 through Election Day. That group received money from the Senate Majority Fund and the national Republican State Leadership Committee.
  • A Democratic super PAC, Coloradans for Fairness, reports that it’s spending just under $1 million on cable TV ads in the five Senate districts. The group’s funding comes from a variety of traditional Democratic groups such as unions and federal-level PACs.
  • Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification reported spending $75,000 on TV ads airing Sept. 15 to 29 supporting Martinez Humenik. The group’s money comes from member utilities.

In addition to TV ads, Democratic and Republican super PACs have spent at least $1.6 million sending glossy mailers.

These sums don’t include the cost of numerous mailers sent or canvassing done by nonprofit groups on both sides. Those groups don’t have to disclose their funding or how much they spend as long as they don’t tell people to vote for or against a candidate.

In the Adams County contest, for instance, Colorado Economic Leadership Fund delivered at least seven mailers or door pieces promoting Republican Martinez Humenik, without suggesting a vote for her.

Colorado Values Project, a recently formed nonprofit, sent a series of mailers attacking Martinez Humenik in District 24 during the summer. Again, nonprofits aren’t required to reveal their donors, so it’s unclear where the group’s money came from.

The other two big players in the Senate contests are the Senate Majority Fund, working on behalf of Republican candidates, and Coloradans for Fairness, working for Democrats.

The Senate Majority Fund independent spending committee has reported spending more than $1.8 million supporting or opposing candidates, while Coloradans for Fairness has spent about $1.5 million through Sept. 26.

The Republican Senate Majority Fund’s top donors are primarily oil and gas companies, among them $250,000 from The Williams Companies; $200,000 from Noble Energy; $116,500 from PDC Energy; $105,000 from Anadarko Petroleum; $102,500 from Liberty Oilfield Services; and $100,000 from Crestone Peak Resources. The group also received $207,500 from Dairy Farmers of America Political Action Trust.

Coloradans for Fairness, the Democratic super PAC, received $1.1 million from The Sixteen Thirty Fund, a nonprofit; $300,000 each from Education Reform Now Advocacy and Everytown for Gun Safety; $235,000 from SEIU COPE, a union; and $200,000 each from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group operated by former Obama administration officials.

“Sometimes it’s some local players are really needing the outcome of that race to go their way, so they pour their money,” said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in Politics. “Other times it’s part of the national scene and some folks have looked at where they can make the most influence on policies nationally by targeting certain legislatures to overturn them.”

A photo of a mailer sent in support of Democrat Faith Winter in Senate District 24, the most expensive legislative race in the 2018 election.

The messaging is misleading on both sides

What that money is buying is the focus of Follow the Message, which is tracking mailers, door literature, TV ads and other messages received from voters in several of these Senate contests, as well as the governor’s race, the 6th Congressional District and more.

While Democrats in these Senate districts are running on the party’s traditional issues – education, teacher pay, support for working families, health care – there’s a twist in 2018. Republicans are now emphasizing the same issues, while still sticking to the tradition of fiscal conservatism and opposition to tax increases.

That’s especially apparent in Senate District 24, where TV ads and mailers talk about Republican Martinez Humenik’s support for education and teachers or mental health care. Of the 38 messages collected by The Sun from that race, more than half refer to education or education funding. Most are mailers or canvassing fliers.

“The positives in those TV ads and mail that we’ve seen come out for Beth have essentially been using my messaging and a progressive message,”  said Winter, her Democratic opponent. “It doesn’t surprise me. This is a year when progressive messaging is working.”

A photo of a flier distributed by Beth Martinez Humenik, the Republican incumbent in Senate District 24.

Martinez Humenik noted she has no control over the outside groups because candidates can’t coordinate with them.

“It’s been surprising. I don’t know actually how much is being spent,” she said. I’m focused on knocking on doors, talking to people, doing my job while I’m still campaigning.”

In fact, outside groups have sent at least 17 mailers praising Martinez Humenik, according to Follow the Message data.

Those groups have sent at least eight mailers targeting Winter.

Many of the mailers claim that Winter voted against a budget amendment proposed by Republicans to increase school funding. But they fail to mention that the amendment would have taken money away from health care programs.

Mailers opposing Martinez Humenik say she supported a 27 percent pay increase for herself, while she voted against raising pay for teachers in the most recent session. But the mailers fail to note that Winter also voted for the 2015 pay-raise legislation, which also applies to county and statewide elected officials.

What’s in your political mailbox? Share with Follow the Message by filling out this form and uploading photos, or emailing pictures to fish@copolitics.co

A graphic in this story was updated Oct. 9, 2018, at 12:22 p.m. to correct Democrat Tammy Story’s ranking for fundraising among candidates for state Senate. 

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