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The Colorado Capitol. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Outside groups spent nearly $1.7 million on eight highly contested Colorado legislative primary races.

But it isn’t always easy to figure out where the money came from, despite a 2019 law touted as bringing more transparency to a system that includes cash from dark-money funded nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors.

In other instances, discerning where the money came from is possible if you have time to track all the state and federal committees involved until the funder is revealed.

Colorado’s independent expenditure committees, also known as super PACs, may take unlimited cash to make independent expenditures as long as they avoid coordinating with candidates or political parties.

Those super PACs outspent candidates in all but one of the eight legislative races where outside money topped $40,000. In only one contest did the candidate favored by big money lose.

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Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold acknowledged the loophole in the 2019 law that some committees use to avoid naming nonprofit donors. She attributed it to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited spending in political contests as long as committees don’t coordinate with candidates or political parties.

“This legislation is really hard because of Citizens United, and because we really had to thread the needle as to what could withstand a constitutional challenge,” Griswold said. “We have one of the most transparent campaign finance systems in the nation. It’s not perfect. There’s more that we can do to perfect it.”

That doesn’t make much difference to Debra Irvine, a Breckenridge artist and longtime Republican activist who spent more than $32,000 of her own money to challenge Sen. Bob Rankin, a retired businessman who lives in Carbondale. Rankin spent nearly $32,000 he raised from others to defeat Irvine with 63% of the vote in Senate District 8, which covers several central mountain counties.

But four super PACs spent more than $114,000 sending mailers and placing digital ads supporting Rankin, an extraordinary sum in a legislative primary race.

“It’s expected for the opposition party to put mailers out against you if you’re running in the general election,” Irvine said. “I’ve never seen this before.”

But that amount is only about a third of the money spent in House District 22, where incumbent Rep. Colin Larson defeated Justin Everett, who held the seat for two terms before he gave it up in 2018 to make a run for state treasurer. Of the nearly $375,000 spent, two thirds was favorable toward Larson and about 25% opposed Everett.

It’s tough to track the super PAC cash

Ten groups made up the bulk of the spending in those eight legislative primary contests, with a couple also weighing in on Weld County commission races. 

Colorado’s voter-approved contribution limits for candidates are the second lowest in the nation, with maximum donations of $400 to candidates for the state House or Senate. Outside groups have had an outsized impact since the limits were implemented in 2004.

Some of the outside money can be traced directly to individuals. Blueflower Action, a super PAC that supports female candidates, received donations from 21 people averaging about $3,000. Weld Strong, which focused on Republican contests in that county, received money from a dozen identified donors. And Friends for the Future, which sent positive mailers about several GOP candidates, had nearly 200 donations from individuals, corporations and other PACs.

Two of the biggest primary spenders are funded by association members. Assuring Quality Healthcare Access for Colorado is funded by members of COPIC, the state medical liability insurer. Prosperity Through Property Rights is funded by members of the Colorado Association of Realtors. Because the per-person contributions are less than $20 each reporting period, the names of the donating members don’t have to be disclosed.

It takes some sleuthing to trace the money to the biggest outside spender, Coloradans for Constitutional Values on the Republican side and its sister super PAC, Better Leaders, Better Colorado, on the Democratic side.

Both of those super PACs received all their money – $755,000 in total – from Unite Colorado Election Fund, another state-level super PAC.

That committee, in turn, received all its money from Unite America, a federal super PAC. Unite America, which is based in Denver, raised nearly $10 million ince 2019, $6.3 million of which came from Kathryn Murdoch. She is married to James Murdoch, the younger son of conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, but donates heavily to Democratic causes.

Griswold said in the future she’ll propose changes to the law to avoid such “Russian nesting doll” issues that require people to take numerous steps to follow the money.

Coloradans for Constitutional Values spent more than $82,000 on mailings and digital ads supporting Rankin, drawing Irvine’s ire.

“This group is definitely not conservative, not Republican,” she said. “And they are also not nonpartisan, which they claim to be,” noting that some of the group’s staff are current or former Democrats.

But Unite’s Colorado Director Terrance Carroll, a former Democratic House Speaker, noted in a written statement that the group supported both Republican and Democratic candidates. 

“We’re proud to have supported a slate of candidates from both parties who are committed to putting people over party and finding pragmatic solutions to Colorado’s toughest challenges,” he said. 

Candidates backed by the two super PACs funded by Unite America won, except in Aurora’s House District 40 contest. There, Better Leaders, Better Colorado spent more than $73,000 supporting public policy professor John Ronquillo and $18,000 opposing mortgage broker Naquetta Ricks, who won the primary. 

Nonprofits avoid disclosure even with 2019 law change

Then there are several super PACs funded primarily by nonprofit organizations.

Ready Colorado Action Fund was the second highest spender in Republican primaries at nearly $323,000. Kent Thiry, the former CEO of DaVita dialysis company, donated $100,000 to Ready Colorado’s super PAC, while $350,000 came from the nonprofit Ready Colorado.

That nonprofit also donated $200,000 to Better Jobs Coalition, the third highest outside spender in GOP contests. Ready Colorado advocates for conservative education reforms, and also spends money lobbying state government and supporting or opposing ballot initiatives. It doesn’t accept money that is designated for specific purposes, Luke Ragland, its president, said in a written statement.

“Donations to nonprofits that are earmarked for independent expenditures and electioneering communications must be disclosed,” he said. “No donations to Ready Colorado were earmarked for such purposes, and, in fact, Ready Colorado does not accept donations that are earmarked for any electoral purpose.”

Likewise, Rick Enstrom, the chairman of Better Jobs Coalition, said in an email that his nonprofit doesn’t accept earmarked donations so the super PAC with the same name that it helped fund doesn’t need to report the source of the money through the Secretary of State’s campaign finance system.

Then there’s the super PAC Raising Colorado, which sent mailers supporting two Democratic candidates. It’s funded by Education Reform Now Advocacy, a national nonprofit that also doesn’t disclose its funding.

Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, sponsored the 2019 Clean Campaign Act that also prohibited donations from foreign individuals or corporations and made other changes.

“The intention of the bill was that any money spent in politics could be traced back to its source,” Bridges said. “If that’s not happening, we need to go back and strengthen that to make sure it does.”

Griswold agreed. She said she’d like to try to strengthen the law in the future, but the work is hampered by Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United.

“We are never going to be able to get the system to 100% transparency and 100% fighting against the corruptive role of money with Congress not acting or without some constitutional changes.”

This story is a part of #FollowtheMoneyCO, a project of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), edited by The Colorado Sun with support from the Colorado Media Project.

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...