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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a "car rally" at Denver's East High School on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Ten current and former members of Colorado’s congressional delegation raised $3 million via leadership political action committees separate from their campaign accounts during the 2020 election cycle, a Colorado Sun analysis shows.

But the leadership PACs operated by Republican former U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and the Democrat who defeated him, U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, accounted for more than 70% of the money raised and spent. 

Such political action committees are intended to allow politicians to help other candidates and party committees via campaign donations. But some watchdog groups consider leadership PACs “slush funds,” often used for resort retreats or consulting.

“Ostensibly, leadership PACs were designed so that members of Congress would be able to spread the wealth to candidates and colleagues,” said Michael Beckel, research director for Issue One, a nonprofit political reform group. “These days there are leadership PACs spending very little on contributions to candidates.”

Donation limits for leadership PACs are also higher than for candidate campaigns, $10,000 total for an election cycle compared with $5,600 total in 2020. And some donors give to both campaigns and leadership PACs, allowing their deep pockets to have more influence. 

Lauren Boebert, shown here at a July 27, 2020 campaign stop in Pueblo started her leadership PAC in mid-December.  (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

About 87% of current members of Congress — including all nine members of Colorado’s congressional delegation — have leadership PACs. Among first-year members of the U.S. House, 55% have leadership PACs. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Garfield County Republican elected to her first term in November, started her leadership PAC in mid-December. 

The Federal Election Commission’s regulation of leadership PAC spending is far more lax than for candidate committees. But such PACs are likely to see increased scrutiny after former President Donald Trump amassed at least $31 million for his new PAC, Save America, in a little more than a month after losing his reelection bid.

The Colorado delegation’s leadership PACs are relatively small players compared with those operated by congressional leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s PAC to the Future, for instance, raised $11.7 million in 2019-20, while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy raised $5.2 million for his Majority Committee PAC. That’s according to data provided by OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group tracking money in federal politics.

In fact, only Hickenlooper and Gardner’s PACs of the 10 Colorado leadership PACs active during the 2020 election cycle exceeded the average of about $351,000 raised by all such committees tied to members of Congress. Six fell below the median of $135,000 raised.

The Colorado Sun downloaded detailed contributions and spending by the 10 leadership PACs to examine where the money came from and where it went.

Two Senate rivals topped fundraising, spending

Gardner’s Project West PAC topped the Colorado list for fundraising in the 2020 cycle, raising nearly $1.3 million. Giddy Up PAC, created by Hickenlooper, brought in $908,000.  

Some 62% of Project West’s donations came from political action committees, while Giddy Up took no PAC money, relying instead on individual donations.

Both Gardner and Hickenlooper spent little of their money donating to candidates or political party committees, like the National Republican Senatorial Committee and state-level parties.  

Hickenlooper’s Giddy Up PAC donated only about $167,000 to other candidates and political parties, or about 13% of the $1.2 million spent by the PAC in 2019 and 2020. Some of the money the PAC spent was raised when Hickenlooper formed the committee in September 2018, about five months before he announced what would become a short-lived presidential bid. 

Giddy UP PAC spent most of its money, or $941,000, on digital marketing, salaries and consulting aimed at Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign, which ended in mid-August 2019. Hickenlooper entered the Senate contest a couple of weeks later and his campaign set records for fundraising in Colorado.

Little of Giddy Up PAC’s spending went to travel, and none to entertainment, the analysis shows. Giddy Up ended 2020 with about $91,000 in cash. 

Gardner’s Project West PAC donated $375,000 to other candidates and Republican Party committees, or about 47% of its total spending. That includes $130,000 to two different committees related to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, $10,000 to the Colorado GOP and $45,000 to five other Republican Colorado congressional candidates. He also divvied up $100,000 between 42 state GOP committees around the nation.

That low spending on contributions to other political committees isn’t unusual, Beckel said. 

“In recent years about half of the money was going toward things other than direct political contributions,” he said. “Leadership PACS can be used to advance one’s political career. They can pay for travel, they can pay for polling, they can pay for research.”

Created in 2012, when Gardner was in the House, Project West spent nearly $24,000 in late November on a canceled Disney World event that was scheduled before he lost his reelection bid to Hickenlooper. The PAC spent $8,000 in October on Disney tickets and event fees, and $4,500 in early November on Disney travel and tickets. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner debated Democratic former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Denver7 studio in Denver on October 9, 2020. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

In 2019, the PAC spent $40,000 on an event at the Brown Palace and about the same on an earlier Disney event.

Such resort spending isn’t uncommon, Beckel said. “They’re trying to go to fancy locations to raise money from wealthy donors.”

Much of the rest of Project West’s spending went for fundraising consulting. The PAC had nearly $633,000 in cash at the end of December.

Crow and Neguse step up while GOP House members raise and spend little

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, two longtime Democratic members of Congress from Colorado, came in third and fourth in leadership PAC fundraising among the state’s delegation at $285,000 and $262,000, respectively. 

Bennet’s Common Sense Colorado spent $157,000, more than half of his $297,000 total spending in 2019 and 2020, donating to other candidates. Most of the rest of his spending went to fundraising consultants, along with $8,300 on events, including a 2019 gathering for supporters in Beverly Hills, California. Virtually all donations to Common Sense Colorado came from individuals, with only 9% from PACs.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet answers questions during a press meeting at New Hampshire’s State Capitol Building on Nov. 6, 2019. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Perlmutter, who lives in Arvada, used 60% of the $253,000 spent by his leadership PAC, EDPAC, to donate to other candidate committees. EDPAC spent nearly $10,000 on an Aspen event in September 2019, but most of the rest of the spending was on fundraising consulting. Nearly all of EDPAC’s donations came from political action committees, including those representing business and labor unions.

Colorado’s newest Democratic members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse, of Lafayette, and Jason Crow, of Aurora, created leadership PACs in 2019, raising $79,000 and $69,000 respectively. Each spent heavily on donations to other candidates, at 95% or more of their total spending. Both PACs received the bulk of their money from individuals.

Longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana Degette of Denver spent 93% of her $80,000 haul during the 2020 election cycle on donations to candidates and Democratic Party committees. About half her committee’s money came from PACs, including ones representing labor unions and groups with ties to medical industries.

Three incumbent Republican House members from Colorado raised and spent the least of the Colorado delegation’s leadership PACs. 

U.S. Rep. Ken Buck’s One Generation PAC donated $10,000 to Gardner’s 2020 U.S. Senate reelection effort. And Gardner’s Project West returned the favor by giving $10,000 to Buck’s reelection campaign.

Former U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton’s leadership PAC donated $3,800 to Gardner’s campaign and $2,000 to U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s campaign. Lamborn’s DOUGLASPAC donated $2,000 to Tipton, who lives in Cortez, and later $2,000 to U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who defeated Tipton in the 3rd Congressional District primary last year and went on to win the seat. Most of DOUGLASPAC’s money came from defense industry PACs. Lamborn represents Colorado Springs, which has a strong military presence.

Gardner’s Project West PAC also donated $5,000 to Boebert’s campaign after donating $10,000 to Tipton’s campaign.

Meanwhile, Boebert, who lives in Garfield County, created her own leadership PAC in December, called We The People PAC. It has yet to report any activity.

See searchable tables of fundraising and spending by the 10 committees.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @fishnette