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East view of Colorado State Capitol Building. Saturday July 21, 2018. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Super PAC money led Colorado to record-setting spending in the 2018 election, totaling $74 million in all state-level races and exceeding the sums expended by candidates.

The total spent in the two-year election cycle surpassed $219 million, according to a Colorado Sun analysis. The amount is a rough estimate that includes publicly disclosed candidate and outside money but doesn’t account for all political spending. The candidate committees spent nearly $62 million combined.

In statewide contests and five key state Senate races, Democrats spent more than Republicans when looking at candidate and outside spending combined, $52.9 million to $35.8 million, respectively, according to the analysis of the final reports submitted Thursday. But that number is skewed by the unprecedented $23 million put into the governor’s race by Democrat Jared Polis himself.

The cash helped fuel big Democratic victories in Colorado, where the party swept the statewide races and won solid majorities in both legislative chambers.

MORE: Democrats will control Colorado’s government for the first time since 1936. Here’s a chart showing historical trends.

The top spending super PAC helped turn the state Senate from red to blue. Coloradans for Fairness spent $7.9 million supporting Democrats and opposing Republican rivals.

The largest GOP independent spending committee, Colorado Freedom, funded by the Republican Attorneys General Association, spent $5.1 million supporting George Brauchler in the attorney general’s race won by Democrat Phil Weiser.

Democratic candidates spent more than Republican counterparts in three of the four statewide races, but GOP political groups typically outspent the Democratic ones in those general election contests to help even the score.

Republican groups couldn’t counter Polis’ money

Polis outspent his GOP rival Walker Stapleton by nearly six-fold, spending $24.4 million with the majority of it from his own pocket. Stapleton spent a total of $4.3 million. His campaign put $200,000 less into the general election than his four-way Republican primary.

Polis spent about $9.72 for each of his nearly 1.4 million votes, the analysis showed, while Stapleton spent $1.89 per vote. Polis’ spending-per-vote was a quarter of what he spent per vote in the Democratic primary for governor.

Republicans tried unsuccessfully to close the gap in the governor’s race with $14.5 million in spending from outside political groups in the general election, compared to $10.5 million from Democrats. The GOP spent more heavily on TV advertising, while Democrats focused their dollars more on door-to-door contact with voters, according to independent spending reports.

The Colorado treasurer’s race was the one statewide constitutional contest where the Republican candidate outspent the Democratic contender.

Republican Brian Watson spent $1.8 million in his losing bid to Democratic Treasurer-elect Dave Young, who spent $539,000. Watson loaned his campaign $1.2 million and ended with a deficit of more than $163,000. Young loaned his campaign more than $101,000.

“The intensity was an advantage for Democratic candidates, and that’s a lot of times reflected in contributions to the campaign,” said Republican consultant Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP. “It was that kind of a year. Now why some Republican candidates didn’t raise more money? I don’t know. But definitely Democrats had the advantage just about everywhere, and fundraising was one of the places they did.”

Republicans spent more in two top Senate races, but lost both

Democrats won all five key state Senate races despite being outspent in two of them, giving them a three-vote majority in the chamber.

The most expensive race — at $6.3 million — was Senate District 20, where Democrat Jessie Danielson defeated Republican Christine Jensen.

The GOP candidate and Republican interests spent $3.5 million in the losing effort, compared to $2.8 million from the Democratic side. Danielson spent far more from her campaign account, but outside money from Republicans boosted Jensen.

Republicans also spent about $44,000 more than Democrats to try to help re-elect Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik against challenger Faith Winter. But Winter won the race by more than 12 percentage points.

In Senate District 16, where Democrat Tammy Story unseated GOP Sen. Tim Neville, Democratic outside groups outspent Republicans by $888,000. In that contest, environmental PAC Conservation Colorado Victory Fund spent nearly $335,000 on canvassing, mailings and digital ads.

All told, outside groups reported spending nearly $19.7 million on state Senate contests via independent spending and electioneering reports filed with the secretary of state as well as TV contracts filed with the FCC. The bulk — $16.7 million — focused on those five most-contested seats.

The actual total amount is likely higher, because nonprofit groups on both sides also sent mailers about Senate candidates during a window when Colorado doesn’t require disclosure of such spending.

Republican outside money wasn’t enough

The top outside spenders in the Senate races showcase the financial disparities with one Democratic group at the top and a handful of Republicans dominating the field.

The attorney general’s race is another one where Republican outside groups tried to lift their allies to victory and blunt big money from the Democratic candidate. Weiser, the attorney general-elect, spent nearly four times as much as Brauchler.

But outside Republican groups spent more than $4.9 million on direct help for Brauchler, while Democratic organizations spent about $2.5 million supporting Weiser.


Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette