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The Senate Chamber at the Colorado State Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The battle for control of the Colorado Senate in the 2020 election is drawing big money ahead of the November election, and the same is true with a handful of ballot measures. 

The latest campaign finance reports show Republicans hold a slight edge against Democrats in terms of super PAC fundraising through the end of 2019.

The Republican-aligned Senate Majority Fund raised nearly $679,000 in 2019, compared to the $667,000 haul by its Democratic counterpart, Leading Colorado Forward, according to campaign finance reports filed last week. The Democratic group also received an additional $40,000 transfer from its predecessor, Coloradans for Fairness, 

The two parties are eyeing a handful of seats that will hold the key to controlling the chamber, where Democrats hold a 19-16 majority. The Democratic majority in the House is much wider, and is expected to hold.

The unlimited contributions raised by these committees play a key role in legislative elections and pay for mailers, TV commercials and more in competitive House and Senate districts.

Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert attributed his party’s fundraising to a desire for a split General Assembly that would represent more balance. The unaffiliated voters, in particular, he said, “don’t want anything too far left or right, and I think voters are apt to respond in a very different way in 2020 than they did in 2018. I’m encouraged and people are enthusiastic about our efforts.”

The Democratic group had $445,000 in the bank and the GOP fund reported at least $535,000 at the start of the year. The totals are just a fraction of what the two sides will raise for the November election, but it signals a big-money fight as Republicans try to retake the Senate majority from Democrats, who took power in 2019 after four years of GOP rule.

In 2018, the four super PACs representing House and Senate lawmakers in both parties combined to spend more than $17 million, with 71% of that going toward state Senate races. Heavy Democratic outside spending helped the party take over the Senate and win a larger margin in the House.

State Sen. Steve Fenberg, the chamber’s Democratic leader, said his party has closed a gap on GOP fundraising advantage compared to prior years. “It’s pretty par for the course that committees try to steadily raise before it’s campaign season,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, left, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert confer over the calendar on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The latest numbers also don’t reflect the big sums Democrats and Republicans are expected to raise in the days leading up to the 2020 session. As The Colorado Sun reported earlier this month in The Unaffiliated newsletter, the events attracted major businesses and interest groups who filled baskets with checks.

Colorado lawmakers and candidates are prohibited from taking contributions from lobbyists or their employers when the legislature is in session, so the events offered a last chance for giving before the 120-day session.

In the House, Democrats hold clear fundraising advantage

On the House side, Democrats easily raised more money than the out-of-power Republican committee.

Better Colorado Alliance, which has a 527 political committee and an independent spending committee organized to support House Democratic candidates, raised nearly $624,000 in all of 2019, according to state reports. The committee also received more than $61,000 in a transfer from its prior iteration, known as Our Colorado Values.

Values First Colorado, a 527 committee that supports Republican state House candidates, raised only about $473,000 in 2019. 

And the reported totals don’t reflect other outside organizations that are often used by Republicans. In 2018, other super PACs, including Better Jobs Coalition and the Republican Party Independent Expenditure Committee, also spent heavily on five key Senate contests, as did the nonprofit Colorado Economic Leadership Fund. Still, Democrats won all five seats.

A Colorado Sun analysis of the filings indicates some major donors so far appear reluctant to support the Values First Colorado committee. The committee is registered by Joe Neville, brother of House Minority Leader Patrick Neville who often is listed as the author of its emails.

At least nine corporate groups donated a combined $176,000 to the other three legislative super PACs in 2019, but nothing to Values First. 

For instance, Extraction Oil & Gas donated $40,000 to Leading Colorado Forward, $25,000 to Senate Majority Fund and $5,000 to Better Colorado Alliance, but nothing to Values First. And PHRMA Colorado donated $14,000 to each of the Democratic super PACs and $10,000 to Senate Majority Fund, but nothing to Values First. 

But Values First appears to be turning to small donors to pick up some of the slack. The group raised 23% — nearly $109,000 —  of its money via donations less than $1,000. 

“I’ve made a big effort in the last year and going into this year to create more of a small dollar network where the people are involved, where the stakeholders are not just lobbyists and special interest and corporations,” said Joe Neville, who runs Values First and a related committee Take Back Colorado, which raised just over $6,000. 

He said House Republicans will “get plenty of support from large donors,” but acknowledged they are making a different pitch. “When you are trying to really put forward a grassroots effort on conservative values, that doesn’t always appeal to large donors.”

By contrast, the Republican-aligned Senate Majority Fund received only 3.6% of its 2019 contributions in amounts less than $1,000. The two Democratic super PACs received only about 1% of cash from small donors.

Thirty-five donors gave $20,000 or more to the four legislative super PACs, the Sun’s analysis found.

2020 ballot initiatives are already raising millions

The latest batch of campaign finance reports also offered glimpses at the groups supporting or opposing three 2020 ballot initiatives that are already qualified for the ballot. They raised a combined $5.5 million in 2019 as they prepared to sway voters on issues related to presidential electoral votes, reintroducing wolves and barring non-citizens from voting in some local elections.

One ballot measure would  repeal a Democratic-authored law to join the national popular vote movement. If enough other states join the compact, Colorado’s nine electoral votes would go to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of the state popular vote.

  • The Yes on National Popular Vote committee, which is trying to defeat the repeal effort, raised $1.8 million through Dec. 21, with 73% coming from wealthy Californians, as The Sun first reported in 2019. The large donors include retired computer scientist Stephen Silberstein, of Belvedere, Calif., at $500,0000;  Dreamhost co-founder Josh Jones, of Santa Monica, Calif., at $330,000; and retired Massachusetts nurse Nancy Beeukes at $250,000. Craig Barratt, an Intel scientist from Santa Clara, RK Coit of Coit Financial Group in Walnut Creek, Calif., and Los Angeles television producer Marcia Carsey also each gave $100,000.
  • Protect Colorado’s Vote, the mostly Republican-backed committee that wants to overturn the national popular vote law, raised $802,000 in 2019. Top donors to that group are nonprofit Better Jobs Coalition at $105,000 and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s leadership PAC, Project West PAC, at $50,000.

An organization behind an effort to prohibit noncitizens from voting qualified for the ballot. The state Constitution already requires voters to be citizens, so the measure wouldn’t have much impact beyond potentially prohibiting some non-home rule cities from allowing noncitizens to vote.

  • Citizen Voters Inc., a Florida nonprofit, contributed virtually all of the $1.4 million raised by Colorado Citizen Voters. The money went to pay people to gather signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. No group is registered with the secretary of state to oppose the measure at this point.

A third ballot measure headed to the ballot would allow the reintroduction of gray wolves in the state.

  • The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund raised about $1.4 million as part of its effort to get the measure to a vote. Large donors included nearly $334,000 from the California nonprofit Tides Center; more than $260,000 from Defenders of Wildlife, which helped gather signatures; and more than $161,000 from the affiliated nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund.
  • Coloradans Protecting Wildlife, which is working against the measure, raised about $10,000 — half of which came from the Colorado Wool Growers Association.

Petition signatures are due March 4 for a measure that would ban abortion after 22 weeks except to save the life of the mother. The Coalition for Women and Children raised just about $33,000 to support its efforts.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @fishnette