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Conservative group backing Colorado’s national popular vote measure fueled by out-of-state money, tied to Democrats

The campaign manager for Conservatives for Yes on National Popular, which is running ads in Colorado in support of the controversial law, declined to name a Republican in the state who has endorsed the measure

Colorado voters cast their primary election ballots in downtown Denver on June 30, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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An issue committee called Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote is running ads in Colorado to persuade Republicans to support their effort to change the way the U.S. elects presidents. 

“We are a group of conservatives … from both Colorado and from across the country who believe that the candidate who gets the most votes should be the president,” said Dennis Lennox, campaign manager for Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote.

But the group also has ties to Democrats and is backed by dark, out-of-state money, Colorado campaign finance records analyzed by The Colorado Sun show. 

Most of the money powering the organization comes from a Minnesota nonprofit whose donors are untraceable. The rest of its funding comes from Yes on National Popular Vote, a Colorado issue committee that is run and financed in large part by Democrats.

Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote also doesn’t appear to have the support of any prominent Colorado Republicans, as the group’s campaign manager refused to name any conservative supporters in the state.

Coloradans in November will decide whether to repeal the legislature’s 2019 decision to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If the law survives the ballot measure, Colorado would potentially hand over its nine electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide — the popular vote. The intent of the law is to bypass the U.S. Electoral College system of choosing presidents, ensuring the candidate who wins the most support also wins the election. 

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The compact takes effect only if the electoral votes of the states adopting the measure add up to at least 270, the number needed to win the presidency. Proponents are still a ways off from reaching that threshold, but Colorado is key in hitting that mark.

The winner of the presidential election has lost the national popular vote just five times in U.S. history, most recently in 2016, when President Donald Trump decisively claimed the Electoral College victory despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. 

Opponents of Senate Bill 42, which signed the state onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, collected more than 124,000 signatures to get a measure on the fall ballot asking voters to repeal the law. It is the first time since a tax increase on margarine was rolled back in 1932 that voters have been asked to confirm or repeal a law.

Don Wilson, the Monument mayor and a lead organizer in effort to repeal the national popular vote compact, watches as supporters sign the petition at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver on July 12, 2019. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Domestic Policies Caucus is the dark-money group largely funding Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote and gave the group its first $85,000 in two donations. The organization is based in Minnesota and is registered with the state as a nonprofit. 

A group called Domestic Policy Caucus and tied to the same individual behind Domestic Policies Caucus is registered as a lobbying association in Minnesota.

Four campaign finance experts interviewed by The Sun said they believed Domestic Policies Caucus could be a shell organization used to move money around and hide its origins.

“If you want to obscure where the money comes from you set up a series of other organizations,” said Kenneth Mayer, who studies campaign finance and elections at the University of Wisconsin, where he is a political science professor.

Domestic Policies Caucus is protected on a number of fronts from revealing its donors, experts say. 

Lobbying organizations, though permitted by Minnesota to make political contributions, have far fewer restrictions on what they must disclose than other political groups, like issue committees or campaign committees.

“That’s just the way our statute is written up,” said Megan Englehart, assistant executive director for Minnesota’s campaign finance board.

Political nonprofit corporations like the Domestic Policies Caucus are also notorious for the lack of disclosure required of them by law, and the group’s involvement across state borders makes it even more difficult to track. Hence, they are referred to as a “dark-money groups.”

Two Republican operatives — Patrick Rosenstiel and Kent Kaiser — linked to Domestic Policies Caucus and Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote also work for Ainsley Shea, a strategic communications firm in St. Paul, Minnesota.  

Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote lists Rosenstiel as its director and Kaiser as a board member. Rosenstiel and Kaiser are also listed as board members on Domestic Policies Caucus’ website. Rosenstiel is CEO of Ainsley Shea and Kaiser is a senior counselor at the firm, to which Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote has paid $42,000 despite a relatively small ad presence, spending less than $4,000 for local cable and Facebook advertising, according to records analyzed by The Colorado Sun. 

Voters cast their ballots in downtown Denver on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Ainsley Shea, which has the same Minnesota address that the Domestic Policy Caucus lists on its Facebook page, is working closely with the broader national popular vote movement. In Minnesota, legislation to join the compact is currently in the state Senate. 

When reached by phone, Kaiser did not answer questions about his involvement with the Domestic Policies Caucus and Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote. 

“I provide consultancy,” he said before declining to provide details about his involvement with the groups. He deferred questions about the Domestic Policies Caucus to Rosenstiel. 

Kaiser said he has been interested in the national popular vote issue for a long time, starting with voter turnout efforts he worked on for the Minnesota Secretary of State. He hopes a national popular vote would increase turnout among conservatives living in liberal areas who feel that their votes don’t matter. 

“Where I currently live, my precinct goes about 80% Democrat, and I just think that if my vote was pooled with conservatives across the country my voice would be heard,” he said.

The Colorado groups Yes on National Popular Vote and Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote each paid Ainsley Shea tens of thousands of dollars. But ties between the groups extend beyond using the same strategic communication firm, as they also share the same registered agent in Colorado: a Democratic operative named Rachel Gordon. 

“I join shoulder to shoulder or arm to arm with conservatives supporting Yes on National Popular Vote because we have the same goal,” said Joe Miklosi, a former Democratic state lawmaker in Colorado who is leading the effort to oppose the repeal measure.

Campaign finance filings show they are more than standing next to each other: Yes on National Popular Vote gave Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote $30,000 on June 11, according to campaign finance records filed in Colorado.

Yes on National Popular Vote, which has raised more than $2.8 million since it was founded in July 2019, has been criticized for its out-of-state funders, many of whom support liberal causes. They include retired computer scientist Stephen Silberstein, of Belvedere, California, at $500,0000; DreamHost co-founder Josh Jones, of Santa Monica, California, at more than $650,000; and retired Massachusetts nurse Nancy Beeuwkes at $250,000. 

Craig Barratt, an Intel scientist from Santa Clara, California, RK Coit of Coit Financial Group in Walnut Creek, California, and Los Angeles television producer Marcia Carsey also each gave $100,000.

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

Lennox, the campaign manager, said his group isn’t a liberal or Democratic organization despite its ties to Yes on National Popular Vote. In a statement provided after declining to answer questions over the phone, Lennox said he is “grateful” for the support of Yes on National Popular Vote. 

However, Lennox declined to name a single Colorado conservative who supports the national popular vote. “We are not releasing endorsements at this time as we are methodically educating conservatives on how a national popular vote for president makes Colorado relevant again,” he said. 

Not one of the 39 Republicans in the Colorado legislature voted for the 2019 bill signing Colorado onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and which was then signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis. 

Polling data, though limited, show support among Republican voters for the measure is also lagging. 

A March 2019 survey by Magellan Strategies, a conservative political firm based in Louisville, found that just 10% of Colorado Republicans had a favorable opinion of a national popular vote law compared with 72% who viewed it unfavorably. 

But Lennox insists the movement has the support of Coloradans on the right. “We have a broad base of support across the state of Colorado with conservatives,” he said.

And proponents of the national popular vote law will need Republican support to prevent the repeal from being approved come Election Day. 

Conservatives for Yes on National Popular vote started running ads in La Plata County late last month. “With the national popular vote, the votes of every Western Slope conservative in every county count,” a narrator says before cutting to audio of President Trump on Fox News expressing his support for the national popular vote. 

Both sides of the battle over the national popular vote ballot question are drawing hard-to-trace money.

The Republican-backed Protect Colorado’s Vote, which opposes the popular vote law, has spent nearly $900,000 since early 2019, much of that for signature collection to get the repeal question before voters in November.

Top donors to that group are nonprofit Better Jobs Coalition at $105,000 and Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s leadership PAC, Project West PAC, at $50,000.

Its individual contributors include prominent Coloradans such as AMG National Trust Bank Chairman Earl Wright, who has donated $70,000, Molson Coors Vice Chairman Pete Coors, who has donated a total of $20,000, and GE Johnson Construction CEO James Johnson, who has donated $10,000. Republican donor William Witter has given $86,000.

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

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