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U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, at an event in Aurora on July 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is banding together with Republican colleagues to raise big money for his 2020 reelection contest — expected to be among the most competitive and expensive in the nation — in a way that some say allows candidates to sidestep campaign finance limits.

To raise the cash, at least one of his committees stopped through Ritz-Carlton hotels and Disney Resorts, and bought branded campaign gear.

In addition to his official campaign account, Gardner is currently a participant in 10 joint fundraising committees, including five added just this month. That’s the second highest number for a senator facing reelection in 2020.

Joint fundraising committees connected to Gardner raised at least $8.7 million since 2015, according to a Colorado Sun analysis. Of that total, $1 million went to Gardner’s official Senate campaign account. And other beneficiaries of the fundraisers may turn around and donate money to Gardner’s Senate campaign or spend it to support his reelection. 

The joint committees allow candidates, political party committees and candidate leadership committees to band together to raise campaign cash from the same donor pool. They’ve grown in importance since Gardner’s first Senate contest in 2014, the year a court overturned aggregate limits of $123,200 for donors to federal campaigns. The joint fundraising committees report contributions and expenses to the Federal Election Commission.

“You’re seeing candidates raise massive contributions well in excess of the limits that technically apply to them and the money is being spent in support of their own reelection,” said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation for Common Cause, an advocacy group pushing to reduce the influence of money in politics.

“When a candidate lends their name to a joint fundraising operation, they utilize the much, much higher contribution limits that state and national federal party committees enjoy,” Ryan added. “They’re tapping into the same donors who can only give them less than $3,000, and hitting them up for tens of thousands or more — six figures in some instances. And every penny of that money raised can be spent directly in support of that candidate’s election efforts.”

How joint fundraising committees work

The arrangement is legal and used by candidates in both parties. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was the first prominent candidate to use the new rules to the fullest. She creating the Hillary Victory Fund to raise money for her campaign, the Democratic National Committee and more than 30 state-level Democratic Party committees. 

Even some Democrats criticized that set-up, angered that Clinton raised money for the national and state parties before her primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders was over. And former interim DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile accused the Clinton campaign of directing how the money was spent even after it was distributed to participants.

Here’s how it works, based on FEC campaign finance rules. A federal candidate may take a maximum donation from an individual of $5,600 for the 2020 election cycle, $2,800 for the primary and the same amount for the general election. A national political party account may take $35,500 from an individual each year. But additional national party administrative accounts may take up to $106,500 per account per year.

For instance, if a joint fundraising committee includes five candidates and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, an individual could write a single check for $64,500. The money could then be distributed to the five candidates and the NRSC based on the limits for each. It also could be used to cover expenses for the joint fundraising committee. Participants must agree in advance how money will be distributed.

Gardner’s campaign said in a written statement that the joint fundraising committees are widely used. “Joint Fundraising Committees are commonly used fundraising vehicles by every major campaign to raise money in accordance with FEC rules and regulations,” spokesman Jerrod Dobkin wrote in an email.

MORE: Here’s who’s running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 — and who’s thinking about it

Gardner connects with allies to boost fundraising

The extra cash is crucial for Gardner’s reelection chances in 2020. Gardner is often listed as one of the top two Republicans whose seat could flip to Democrats, and the campaign is expected to be costly.

Last week, Gardner reported raising more than $2 million from April through June 30, bringing his total cash on hand in his campaign account to $5 million. Since 2015, the campaign raised $6.6 million, with 16 percent coming from joint fundraising committees.

His incumbency gives him an advantage, and he began fundraising soon after taking office in 2015. 

The numerous Democrats who want to challenge him are just getting started on the money hunt and will likely spend most of what they raise to win the party’s nomination. And because the state Democratic Party is staying out of the primary contest, it’s unlikely the candidates will form joint fundraising committees with the party or other Democratic candidates.

But Gardner has plenty of friends to help him raise money, especially because he served as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign in 2018. The NRSC raised and spent more than $151 million to keep the U.S. Senate in Republican hands in the 2018 election.

Of the 19 Republicans and 10 Democrats running for reelection in 2020, only U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, is part of more joint fundraising committees this year than Gardner. Tillis is part of 13 such committees, including six in common with Gardner.

“Gardner is expecting a competitive race and is going to raise as much money as possible for that for race,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center.

Since 2015, Gardner’s campaign account received more than $1 million in transfers from the 10 joint fundraising committees he belongs to now. An 11th joint committee existed only in the 2018 campaign cycle. 

The total is expected to rise. In 2016, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado received nearly $1.7 million from 11 joint fundraising committees in his successful reelection bid.

The top two committees funneling money to Gardner’s Senate campaign are closely affiliated with the lawmaker.

His Gardner Victory Committee is a joint committee that raises money for Gardner’s leadership committee, Project West PAC; the Colorado Republican Party; and the NRSC.

The Gardner for Colorado joint fundraising committee also raises money for Project West PAC and the Colorado Republican Committee.

Project West PAC recently donated $50,000 to a group trying to repeal Colorado’s adoption of a national popular vote compact, which would award the state’s electoral votes to the top national voter-getter in the presidential race. 

The leadership PAC is allowed under law to donate to other candidates and political committees. For instance, Project West has donated to the NRSC and several Senate candidates, including Republican Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

MORE: Koch political group endorses Cory Gardner. How much it will spend in Colorado remains a mystery.

Big donors use joint committees to help Gardner

Phil and Nancy Anschutz top the list of Colorado donors to Gardner’s joint fundraising committees. The billionaire businessman and his wife each gave $150,000 to Gardner Victory on March 29.

The money from each was then sent to other committees, with $134,800 to the NRSC, $5,000 to Project West PAC and $200 to Gardner’s official Senate campaign account.

Pete Coors and Larry Mizel each donated $50,000 to Gardner Victory this year. Of Coors’ money, $39,400 went to the NRSC, $5,600 to Gardner’s Senate campaign and $5,000 to Project West. Of Mizel’s money, $45,000 went to the NRSC. Separately, Mizel donated $5,600 directly to Gardner’s Senate campaign this year.

The NRSC donated nearly $45,000 to Gardner’s campaign in late June. It’s possible some of that money came from Gardner Victory donors, but that is not disclosed in the federal filings. The NRSC also is likely to spend big money next year on ads supporting Gardner and attacking his opponent. In 2014, the group spent at least $4.5 million on TV ads, most of them attacking his rival Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, whom Gardner defeated.

“Even though that check is ostensibly divided between the campaign committee and the party committees, it’s very likely that the money is ultimately going to be spent to benefit their (the candidate’s) campaign,” said Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center.

One committee stands out for its spending habits

A big difference between one of the two committees most closely affiliated with Gardner and the others is how it spends money. 

Most of the committees, including Gardner Victory, distribute the bulk of their money, typically 70 percent or more, to participating candidates and committees.

Although the Gardner for Colorado joint committee raised nearly $1.2 million since 2015, it distributed only about $310,000 to Gardner’s Senate campaign, Project West and the Colorado Republican Party. In fact, it hasn’t allocated any money to campaigns so far this year despite raising $187,000, mostly from business-related political action committees.

The bulk of Gardner for Colorado spending appears to go to fundraising and travel expenses.

Outside of transfers to Gardner’s official campaign account, the biggest recipient from Gardner for Colorado joint committee since 2015 is Ritz-Carlton hotels at nearly $137,000. Most recently, the committee spent nearly $34,000 at the Avon location on March 4 and nearly $14,000 there on Jan. 30. Both 2019 expenditures were listed as “travel.”

The committee spent more than $43,000 for catering from the Minturn Country Club, a steakhouse in Minturn, east of Avon. On Jan. 30, the tab came to more than $15,600.

Another $23,000 was spent on “campaign attire,” golf memorabilia, and T-shirts and hats since 2015. In 2017, the committee spent more than $20,000 on Disney resorts, listing the purpose as event site and travel.

Dobkin, the campaign spokesman, said the spending covered the cost of fundraising events, catering and gifts for donors. 

Gardner faces FEC questions regarding donor limits 

The way joint fundraising receipts are listed on candidate filings can be difficult to track. Often, candidates list both a large contribution from the joint fundraising committee and duplicate individual or PAC contributions.

It makes it difficult to square the numbers, and sometimes the FEC has questions.

So far this year, the election agency sent two notices to Gardner’s official Senate campaign about income from joint fundraising committees and donations that appeared to be over the legal limits.

In May, the FEC asked Gardner’s campaign to clarify discrepancies from a report filed in January regarding the sums received from joint fundraising committees and notations for individual donations funneled through those committees.

The Gardner campaign replied in late June  that entries on 2017 campaign finance filings resolved the 2018 issues. 

In a second letter in June, an FEC analyst cited numerous contributions, mostly from individuals, that exceed the legal limits of $2,800 each for the primary and the general election. The notice gives the campaign until Aug. 1 to resolve the issues, either by reclassifying donations to a different cycle or returning them.

The campaign returned nearly $42,000 worth of contributions in the most recent reporting period, most of which were mentioned in the June FEC letter. 

The notices are “standard practice,” Dobkin said in an email. “Like we do with all of these requests, we are in the process of clarifying it within the timeframe provided by the FEC.”

In fact, FEC requests to clarify campaign finance filings aren’t unusual. The two letters to Gardner are among more than 240 requests to Senate campaigns thus far in 2019.

“If there’s something that doesn’t add up or excessive or prohibited contributions, it’s a way to say this requires your attention,” said Myles Martin, an FEC spokesman. “It’s a very common process.”

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...