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Voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at the Tivoli Student Union at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

School board and municipal elections in Colorado are nonpartisan — but that’s really in name only. 

While candidates may not be identified as Republicans or Democrats on the ballot, there is plenty of partisan spending and support happening behind the scenes.

That was especially true this year, when conservatives spent heavily to win municipal contests on Nov. 2. The biggest Republican victory last week came in the Aurora City Council contests, where conservative candidates won three of five races. The victories came at a price of $829,000 in spending by independent committees.

Election observers say the increased partisanship of races at the most basic level of governance is a mixed proposition.

“When elections become more partisan, voters have a better idea of what’s going on,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver who leads the school’s Center on American Politics. “It becomes easier to follow the factions in a city council. At the same time, you also lose some of the pragmatic deal-making that can occur. And you lose some level of functionality in city government.”

The Colorado Municipal League, which represents municipalities across the state, is keeping tabs on the increased partisanship, said Meghan Dollar, the group’s legislative advocacy manager. Dollar said it’s possible that in the future, cities and towns might include labels with candidates’ names on municipal ballots.

“Ultimately, whether municipalities decide to put an R or D or even an I next to it, the league doesn’t have a position on that,” Dollar said. “We’re watching it to see if that’s something our members choose to do.”

A Colorado Sun analysis of competitive municipal contests this year found that of the candidates endorsed by Republicans, 23 won, 23 lost and the outcome of one race is pending a recount. Candidates endorsed by Democrats won 23 races and lost in 10. 

But, notably, the GOP gained or retained majorities on city councils in Aurora, Westminster, Greenwood Village and Loveland.

The day after the election, Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown sent an email extolling wins in municipal contests.“WE NOW CONTROL” the email crowed about Aurora and several other cities.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll sent an email of her own to supporters, lauding victories in several municipal elections, though implicitly noting losses as well: “So as you can see… last night was a mixed bag!”

Dark-money GOP groups back Aurora candidates

Two Republican-aligned groups backed candidates in the Aurora City Council elections. 

They were Aurorans for a Safe and Prosperous Future, which reported spending nearly $603,000, and Aurora Forward, which spent nearly $226,000. The money went toward digital and radio ads, mailers, text messages to voters and other initiatives supporting the GOP candidates. 

The two groups were funded by Colorado Rising Action Fund, which gave them $554,000, Workforce Fairness Institute, which contributed $234,000, and Better Jobs Coalition, which gave $50,000. All three of those organizations are conservative nonprofits that don’t disclose who gave them their money.

Contrast that with just under $150,000 in spending by three committees — Conservation Colorado Victory Fund, New American Victory Fund and Aurora Working Families Party — on behalf of five progressive candidates, only two of whom won. 

Those committees also were funded by nonprofits that also don’t disclose their donors. Green Advocacy accounted for $60,000 worth of the donations, the League of Conservation Voters $43,500, Colorado People’s Action $34,000 and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund $10,000.

Winning candidates backed by the GOP included Dustin Zvonek, who previously led the Colorado branch of Americans for Prosperity and who also worked with Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman’s congressional campaigns. Zvonek and Republican-backed veteran and businesswoman Danielle Jurinsky won two at-large seats. And restaurateur Steve Sundberg won the Ward II council seat. 

Democrat John Ronquillo placed third in the at-large contest, about 2,500 votes behind Jurinsky. 

“After that first (campaign finance) report, I knew it was going to be an uphill battle, one that I thought we were going to be able to surmount,” Ronquillo said. “While our party affiliations were not on the ballot, the money in this race was absolutely partisan.”

One mailer sent by Aurorans for a Safe And Prosperous Future claimed Ronquillo would defund the police, ignore the housing crisis and allow “homeless to camp by our homes, parks and businesses.” That’s despite Ronquillo’s emphasis on affordable housing, retaining police officers and firefighters, and addressing homelessness. 

The outside group Aurorans for a Safe And Prosperous Future sent this mailer criticizing Aurora City Council candidate John Ronquillo, who said it misrepresented his positions.

As a result of the mailer, Ronquillo said, “I lost Democratic votes.”

Zvonek said the prevalence of outside spending this year could be attributed to the Aurora City Council’s decision last year to limit donations directly to candidates. 

“When you limit the ability to give directly to the candidates it tends to find its way elsewhere,” he said. “There’s always been some level of outside spending in Aurora. It just had never reached this level.”

Two other candidates backed by Republicans and dark-money groups, Bill Gondrez in Ward I and Jono Scott in Ward III, lost to incumbent Crystal Murillo and newcomer Ruben Medina, respectively. Both Murillo and Medina were endorsed by Democrats.

Still, as Burton Brown noted in her email, the wins shift the majority on Aurora’s City Council from progressives to conservatives. The candidates supported by the GOP campaigned on addressing crime and addressing homelessness, issues the party hopes to emphasize in 2022’s general election at the state and federal level.

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Plenty of money in Loveland, Thornton contests

Meanwhile, in Loveland, a nonprofit called Advancing Northern Colorado spent nearly $114,000 supporting three Republican-backed candidates in city contests. The candidates were Patrick McFall in Ward I, Steve Olson in Ward III and Jon Mallo in Ward IV.

Former University of Colorado regent Tom Lucero, a Republican, is listed as the registered agent for the group, which doesn’t have to reveal its donors.

McFall and Olson won their contests, while Mallo led by only five votes in the Ward IV race as of Wednesday, with a recount pending. 

Mayor Jacki Marsh won reelection over Councilman Don Overcash, who was supported by Advancing Northern Colorado.

Better Jobs Coalition’s state-level super PAC also reported spending more than $60,000 to support six candidates in Commerce City and Thornton council contests. 

Rick Davis won the Ward III council seat in Commerce City, while as of Wednesday morning, Sean Ford led Richard Thompson by 20 votes for the second of two open at-large seats. All three were supported by Better Jobs. 

In Thornton, Tony Unrein, Jessica Sandgren and Angie Bedolla were supported by Better Jobs Coalition and business groups. The National Association of Realtors reported donating more than $56,000 to independent spending committees supporting Unrein, Sandgren and Bedolla, while a state super PAC funded by the Metro Housing Coalition spent $20,000 supporting the three. 

Unrein and Sandgren won their races, while Bedolla lost to Karen Bigelow.

Conservation Colorado, a liberal-leaning nonprofit, reported putting more than $1,800 into a committee that made donations to four candidates, including Bigelow.

In Greenwood Village, all four GOP-backed candidates won city council seats despite a Democratic-oriented group, called Future Forward Colorado, that spent about $29,000 supporting seven candidates. There were eight total seats up for grabs.. 

Democratic state Rep. Meg Frolich, of Englewood, donated $13,500 to Future Forward Colorado and her brother Derek Kruizenga gave $8,000 to the group. 

And in Broomfield, progressive candidates swept the mayoral race and council seats with little outside spending supporting their campaigns. That contrasts to 2017, when the city was a battleground over oil and gas regulation

Here’s a list of municipal candidates endorsed by Republicans and Democrats and outcomes of their contests.

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette