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Politics and Government

Colorado’s lawmakers in Washington use leadership PACs to raise extra cash from big-moneyed interests

The only member of Colorado’s congressional delegation without a leadership PAC is first-year Democratic Rep. Jason Crow

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Democratic Gov. Jared Polis touted in his congressional campaigns and 2018 gubernatorial race that he rejects money from political action committees. But his federal leadership committee took plenty from PACs.

Sen. Cory Gardner collected donations to his leadership committee and sent $485,000 from his total to PACs aimed at keeping Republicans in the Senate majority in 2016 and 2018.

U.S Sen. Cory Gardner and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at an event in Aurora on July 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Leadership PACs allow incumbent federal lawmakers to raise and spend money outside their official campaigns, often under the radar. Now fundraising through such committees is on the rise in recent election cycles, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that analyzes campaign finance data.

Money raised by the PACs can be used to cover expenses not covered by campaign committees, such as the cost of  lawmaker travel, or to spread to other party committees or candidates. But it can’t be transferred to campaign committees. 

It also gives wealthy donors another avenue to give to a candidate beyond Federal Election Commission limits for campaign committees.

“The reason leadership PACs were designed was so that politicians could raise extra money to spread it around to vulnerable members who had more difficulty raising money and help out like-minded political allies,” said Michael Beckel, research manager for Issue One, a group working to reform several aspects of the national political system.

Colorado federal lawmakers raised and spent nearly $6 million via leadership PACs from January 2015 through the end of June, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of federal campaign finance reports. The time frame covers the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, plus the beginning of the 2020 cycle.The Sun analysis included Polis, who left Congress after being elected governor, and former Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora, who lost in 2018 to Democrat Jason Crow. 

Top donors to Colorado lawmakers’ federal leadership PACs include several that make Issue One’s top donor list of corporate PACs in a report issued last year, including Honeywell International, United Parcel Service and Raytheon. But PACs operated by Ernst & Young, Union Pacific and the Investment Company Institute also contributed to Colorado lawmakers, as did insurance, health care and pharmaceutical interests. The goal is to influence lawmakers as they consider legislation.

Leadership PACs don’t get much attention, said Campaign Legal Center’s Brendan Fischer, an attorney who works on federal elections issues. “Controversial sources of contributions can be given to a politician’s leadership PAC while escaping scrutiny,” he said.

The leadership PACs connected to Gardner’s Project West PAC and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s Common Sense Colorado are the top fundraisers and spenders among the Colorado delegation. The two made Issue One’s top 50 list for fundraising from January 2017 through September 2018.

At the other end of the spectrum is Rep. Joe Neguse. The Lafayette Democrat who took office in January raised just $2,000 for HOPE PAC, which he opened in April. Crow, another first-year lawmaker from Aurora, is the only Colorado incumbent congressman without a leadership PAC.

The leadership PACs for Gardner and Bennet consistently bested the average for U.S. senators, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that analyzes campaign finance data. But Colorado House members underperformed their counterparts when it came to leadership PACs. That’s likely because Bennet and Gardner led Senate campaign fundraising committees for their parties in recent years.

MORE: We followed the money to see how Cory Gardner is raising big cash for his reelection campaign

Polis raised money from corporate interests into leadership PAC

Polis built his campaigns for Congress and governor largely using his own personal wealth and rejecting money from PACs, which are often controlled by corporate interests that can’t donate directly to candidates.

Yet Fearless PAC, his leadership committee, accepted nearly $640,000 between 2015 and 2017 from PACs representing interest groups in finance, internet, cannabis, insurance and other sectors. That money accounted for nearly 86% of the $746,000 raised by Fearless PAC during its last two election cycles.

PACs affiliated with Home Depot, Lockheed Martin, UPS, New York Life Insurance and the Investment Company Institute each donated $15,000 to Fearless PAC. The committee spent about 30% of its money on contributions to other Democratic candidates, 23% on fundraising consulting and also donated to various Democratic Party committees.

The governor’s spokesman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about Fearless PAC.

Like other campaign contributions, Issue One’s Beckel said giving to leadership PACs is one way business leaders get access to members of Congress.

“Giving to leadership PACs has often been one of the tools that Washington-based special interest groups use to curry access and influence with lawmakers,” he said. “All special interest groups are thinking about which members of Congress it would be prudent to have beneficial working relationships with. And making a contribution to a leadership PAC is often the price to get into a fundraising event … where you are given an opportunity to rub shoulders with or mingle with the politician and their staff.”

Polis closed Fearless PAC in August 2017, shortly after he began his run for governor. Before it closed, the PAC contributed $15,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, which backed his bid for governor.

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, at a town hall in Aurora on Aug. 27, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Neguse, who took Polis’ 4th District seat, accepts PAC money and so do most other Colorado members of Congress, despite a broader trend in Democratic circles to not take such donations. Crow rejected corporate PAC money during his 2018 campaign, but has since taken money from PACs affiliated with unions, insurance companies, hospitals and others into his campaign account.

Leadership committees for Gardner and Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, each received 83% of their money from PACs. Bennet’s committee received 75% from PACs.

Federal lawmakers double up on donors through PACs

One of the benefits for lawmakers with federal leadership PACs: It allows donors to contribute beyond traditional campaign finance limits.

A candidate’s campaign committee can take a maximum of $5,600 during the 2020 election cycle and $5,400 in the 2016 and 2018 cycles from individuals. But individuals and PACs may donate an additional $5,000 a year to other PACs. That means leadership PACs may take in $10,000 during a two-year election cycle from an individual donor in addition to $5,600 that donor can give to the lawmakers’ campaigns.

For example, Bennet’s Common Sense Colorado received $20,000 each from 16 PACs and two individuals since 2015. His Senate campaign account received about $119,000 from those same donors in the time frame. Jonathan Gray, billionaire president of The Blackstone Group, and his wife, Mindy, donated $20,000 each to Common Sense Colorado, $5,400 each to Bennet’s successful 2016 Senate campaign and also gave $2,800 each to his presidential campaign. 

Bennet is rejecting corporate PAC money in his presidential campaign, and Common Sense Colorado hasn’t reported any PAC contributions in 2019.

Bennet entered the presidential contest at the start of May, and Common Sense Colorado spent about $21,000 on fundraising consulting and other services after the announcement. It’s possible the payments were for services purchased before his presidential announcement. 

Gardner’s Project West leadership PAC received $25,000 each from PACs affiliated with Honeywell International, Lockheed Martin, UPS and Xcel Energy since 2015. Those four companies donated $25,500 to his Senate campaign committee between 2015 and June. Gardner’s campaign declined to comment about Project West PAC.

The overlap in donations to Polis came from venture capitalist Brad Feld and his wife, Amy Batchelor, each of whom donated the maximum to the candidate campaign and $5,000 each to Fearless PAC in 2015 and 2017.

Beckel said that’s typical. “For a lot of leadership PAC donors, these are people who have already maxed out to a candidate’s campaign,” he said. “By definition these things do allow wealthy donors and political action committees to legally evade the contribution limits that exist.”

MORE: In rare case, a Colorado judge rules campaign donations influenced a county board’s vote

Leadership PAC fundraising helps lawmakers pay party dues

In his 2017 book “Drain the Swamp,” U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, decried the pressure to raise money to essentially pay “dues” to party committees, including the amounts required for certain roles. “If you want to serve on a committee, you have to raise money for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC),” Buck wrote. “The amount varies depending on the committee and the role.”

Buck now chairs the Colorado Republican Party, where one of his chief duties is fundraising.

Ken Buck, the newly elected state Republican Party chairman, poses with Vera Ortegon, middle, and George Leing, right, after winning the election March 30, 2019. Ortegon and Leing are the states Republican National Committee members. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee conducts a similar program with dues goals for its members. According to documents published by The Intercept, a publication that takes an adversarial stance toward corporations, Democratic Colorado lawmakers are behind in their fundraising goals —  Neguse by $400,000; Rep. Diana DeGette by $300,000, Perlmutter by $250,000, and Crow by $175,000.

Many Democrats are beginning to reject corporate PAC money, especially younger members, as The Intercept story notes. Neguse’s co-representative of the freshman class to Democratic leadership, California’s Rep. Katie Hill, is among those critics.

Asked for comment about his DCCC fundraising deficit, Perlmutter issued a statement to The Sun: “I will continue to help Democrats win in 2020 both through financial support but also walking door to door.”

Candidates raise money for party committees through leadership PACs, as well as  joint fundraising committees and their campaign committees.

Buck’s campaign, for instance, donated $10,000 to the NRCC in 2017. U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, had his campaign committee donate more than $130,000 to the NRCC in 2015 and 2016. 

But leadership PACs are often a vehicle members of Congress use to ante up to their chamber’s campaign committee. In a swing state such as Colorado, they can expect plenty of help from those groups come election time.

“Using leadership funds would be an acceptable use of satisfying those dues funds, which is a separate question than whether those dues are a good idea,” Fischer said.

Gardner led the National Republican Senatorial Campaign in 2018, and his Project West PAC donated $435,000 to the NRSC between 2015 and this year, and $50,000 to the Senate Leadership Fund, another PAC supporting Republicans. When Gardner defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in 2014, the NRSC spent nearly $6 million opposing the incumbent.

Bennet chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2014. His Common Sense Colorado donated $100,000 to the Senate Majority PAC in 2016 and $75,000 to the DSCC from 2015 through June this year.

Several House members used their leadership PACs to donate smaller amounts to the DCCC. The Colorado delegation’s leadership PACs also donated $52,500 to the Colorado Democratic Party and $30,000 to the Colorado Republican Committee.

As Beckel noted, another purpose of leadership PACs is to help candidates in competitive contests by donating to their campaigns. 

Buck’s One Generation committee donated virtually all of its $28,000 to other candidates, including $10,000 to Gardner’s Senate campaign in late March. 

Former state Sen. Morgan Carroll received $24,000 from Colorado Democrats’ leadership PACs for her unsuccessful 2016 bid in the 6th Congressional District, making her the top candidate recipient between 2015 and June. She is now chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

But for the most part, the more money leadership PACs raised between 2015 and June 2019, the smaller proportion they donated to other candidates. Gardner’s Project West, for instance, put 33% of its spending toward other candidates, while Bennet’s Common Sense Colorado put only 25% toward other candidate campaigns.

Leadership PACs allow spending outside campaign committees

In some instances, fundraising consultants are significant beneficiaries of leadership PAC money. 

Gardner’s Project West PAC paid identified nearly $477,000, 20% of his spending, as fundraising-related. Bennet’s Common Sense Colorado spent $318,000, about 18% of his total, on fundraising. And Polis’ Fearless PAC paid $184,000, 23% of his spending, to a fundraising consultant.

Then there are the swank venues where leadership PACs host their donors.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, gives a book reading and talks to constituents at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on East Colfax Avenue on Jun 16, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Bennet’s Common Sense Colorado spent nearly $210,000 on events at Vail Resorts and nearly $73,000 at the St. Regis Aspen Resort between January 2015 and June 2019. It also spent nearly $10,000 for food at Washington, D.C.’s Capital One Arena.

Gardner’s Project West spent more than $40,000 at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel and nearly $40,000 for travel and fundraising at Disney properties. Gardner’s joint fundraising committees also spend heavily at Ritz-Carlton hotels, as The Sun previously reported.

Polis’ Fearless PAC spent about $3,700 at the Sebastian Vail and $2,300 for catering at 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirits in 2016. In 2017, the PAC paid a nearly $5,500 cancellation fee to the Four Seasons Resort in Vail after he entered the governor’s contest.

Other candidates didn’t spend as much money to raise money for their leadership committees. Neither Buck’s nor DeGette’s committees reported paying fundraising consultants, and DeGette spent little on events. 

“You know, people say it takes money to raise money and to woo wealthy donors,” said Issue One’s Beckel. “In many cases, we’re seeing lavish expenditures for fundraising expenses such as meals at fancy restaurants or rounds of golf at elite golf courses or trips to luxury resort. All in the guise of fundraising.”

Updated 7: a.m. Sept. 20, 2019: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Michael Beckel, Issue One’s research manager and details about the group’s top donor analysis. The report covered January 2017 to September 2018.

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