The images are scary, the text is frightening.
The flyers filling Coloradans’ mailboxes are often the political version of a horror movie.
Many of them stretch the truth. Some of them are outright wrong. Others are cookie-cutter templates with different candidate photos pasted in.
They rarely mention whether a candidate is a Republican or Democrat. They’re often sent by groups with names that include words such as values, fairness, majority or business opportunity.
VOTER GUIDE 2018: Resources, explainers, latest news and more
The trends are evident in nearly 300 samples submitted to Follow the Message in a midterm election that is crucial to both parties, with a congressional seat at play, an open seat for governor and the balance of the state Senate teetering.
Follow the Message — a project of The Colorado Sun — collected mailers for the 2018 election and analyzed the messages as well as the groups behind them.
Here’s a look at some of the trends so far:
The nasty attacks are prevalent
There are plenty of nasty missives in mailboxes these days.
Democratic Congressman Jared Polis is the subject of many of these mailers, most sent by Republican super PAC Better Colorado Now. The organization is supporting Republican candidate Walker Stapleton, who helped them raise money before he entered the race.
The missives portray Polis as phony, dodgy, phony and, again, phony. (Most of these attacks have been debunked by TV fact-checkers.) Recent independent spending reports indicate Better Colorado has spent $1.4 million on mailers in the governor’s contest. But few mailers supporting Polis or attacking Stapleton have been reported. (If you have some, please share here.)
MORE: A guide to the outside money — and where it’s coming from — in the Colorado governor’s race
State Senate contests also are getting down and dirty, as Republicans try to hang on to their slim majority.
Most of these negative mailers come from outside groups, rarely from candidates themselves.
But there’s at least one exception.
Republican Tony Sanchez recently sent two mailers and a lengthy letter attacking Democratic state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, his opponent in the contest for Senate District 22 in Jefferson County.
One says “vote against Brittany Pettersen or she will let addicts shoot up on your street!”
Pettersen has been open about the fact that her mother is a recovering opioid addict. She chaired a bipartisan interim committee that recommended a bill that would have, among other things, allowed a pilot program for health officials to set up supervised injection sites for addicts, most likely in Denver. That measure failed in the state Senate.
The misleading claims are abundant
An initial mailer from End Citizens United attacked Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, saying “corporate special interests have spent $17 million to keep him in D.C.” That’s flat-out wrong. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, that’s the total of what Coffman has raised since first running for office in 2008. Most of that money came from individuals, only $5.2 million came from political action committees.
At the state level, there are plenty of instances where lawmakers took what may have appeared to be inconsequential votes, often on minor amendments, that are now being turned into big headlines in mailers.
Consider Senate District 24 in Adams County, where Republican incumbent Beth Martinez Humenik faces Democratic state Rep. Faith Winter. It’s a seat Martinez Humenik narrowly won in 2014.
Martinez Humenik and Winter voted in 2015 to raise the pay for statewide elected officials, county officials — and state lawmakers effective in 2019. The timing meant that lawmakers did not vote to increase their own pay because they’d have to win reelection to get the higher salary.
But a mailer from Democratic super PAC Coloradans for Fairness virtually screams that Martinez Humenik’s vote for the future pay hike “put her own interests ahead of our children,” citing her vote against a budget amendment to increase teacher pay. Budget amendments usally don’t pass and many are designed for political purposes.
Another mailer from the same group says, “A 27% raise for herself. Nothing for our teachers.” It’s misleading because lawmakers don’t set teacher pay. The state budget apportions money to school districts who decide how to spend it.
Winter, meanwhile, has been the target of a barrage of negative mailers from the Republican Senate Majority Fund. One implies she wanted to raise taxes by $25,000 on each Colorado family.
It cites Winter’s vote for a bill to improve family leave by charging an insurance premium of less than 1 percent of wages for all Colorado employees. A fiscal analysis suggested the highest cost would be $990 a year for someone earning $100,000 a year.
The cookie-cutter attacks on candidates
The family leave accusation also is being made against state Rep. Jessie Danielson, as she runs against Republican business woman Christine Jensen for an open Senate seat centered in Arvada and Wheat Ridge.
But the clearest duplication comes from Colorado Moms Who Care, which has sent at least two identical mailers in state House contests, swapping out the photos of candidates. That group is a super PAC supporting candidates “who stand for family values.” It is operated by Kristine Brown, the co-sponsor of a failed 2008 “personhood” amendment in Colorado, and funded by another Republican super PAC Values First Colorado.
The “Education Voter Guide 2018” lists identical issue stances for candidates in House Districts 28 and 38, with Republican candidates favored in both.
The ironic and misleading mailers
Republican groups recently sent mailers supporting two embattled incumbent state senators featuring Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, virtually implying the governor’s endorsement.
In one, the governor is shown signing a bill sponsored by Martinez Humenik. It notes that Martinez Humenik works with Republicans, Democrats and Hickenlooper. But it doesn’t note that she’s a Republican, and that Hickenlooper has endorsed Winter, her opponent.
In another, Hickenlooper is pictured with Sen. Tim Neville, one of the most conservative Republicans in the legislature. The governor told The Sun that he was upset about the implied endorsement. Neville faces Democrat Tammy Story, also endorsed by Hickenlooper, in a district that encompasses western Jefferson County and other areas.
Both pieces came from Business Opportunity Fund, which reported a negative balance of $426,000 as of Oct. 10, but appears to be spending heavily on behalf of Republicans in the state Senate contests.
Hickenlooper authored a letter sent to residents in Senate District 22 in support of Pettersen, urging voters to ignore negative ads about her.
Hickenlooper says the letter isn’t an endorsement, but he has endorsed Pettersen, Winter, Story and three other Senate Democrats, as well as Polis and other Democrats running statewide.
The irony here? The sender is Coloradans for Fairness, a Democratic super PAC that has sent plenty of negative mailers about Republicans in state Senate contests.
Both sides in the Senate contests have used Senate Bill 200, a public pension reform measure, as a cudgel.
Coloradans for Fairness has accused Martinez Humenik of voting to cut benefits for teachers, citing Senate Bill 200, even though Winter also voted for it. And likewise in Senate District 20, where Democratic Rep. Danielson faces Republican Jensen, GOP groups are accusing Danielson of cutting benefits for teachers.
The mailers fail to note that the bill was sponsored by Republicans in the Senate and that Danielson voted against the final version of the measure.
Finally, there’s the mailer from Colorado’s Shared Heritage citing a Colorado Springs Gazette editorial supporting Amendment 74.
The measure would require government to compensate property owners if regulations, such as actions against oil and gas, devalue their property. The thing is, after the initial editorial, the newspaper’s editorial board backtracked, issuing a strongly worded opposition to the measure.
A more positive tone in some messages
Believe it or not, there are some positive mailers out there.
In state Senate contests, many of them are coming from groups supporting Republican candidates.
Americans for Prosperity has sent at least a couple of mailers supporting Stapleton in the governor’s contest. One says he would “fight back against government overreach.”
However, the group has yet to file reports required within 48 hours of spending with the secretary of state’s office, as required by law. A spokesman said the group is looking into the situation.
Want to see more mailers? Find them at Follow the Message. And feel free to submit what we’re missing.