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A Federal Protective Service officer enters the Alfred A. Arraj Courthouse in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda)

Colorado’s 20-year-old campaign donation limits will remain unchanged — at least for now — after a federal judge late Thursday rejected a request from a group of Republicans for a preliminary injunction immediately suspending the limits.

Individual donors are limited to giving $400 to state legislative candidates and $1,250 to candidates for statewide office. Those limits are among the lowest in the nation.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge John Kane issued the ruling after a hearing that lasted eight hours between Wednesday and Thursday.

“There is no right to give or receive unlimited political contributions” under the First Amendment right to free speech or association, Kane wrote. 

He said a full trial based on more extensive evidence must be held before the donation limits are rejected. “The public has a significant interest in not suffering the reverberations of a federal court order that declares a constitutional referendum unconstitutional on the basis of an incomplete record,” he wrote.

Still, Kane agreed that the donation limits are likely too low, leaving open the possibility they could be overturned after a trial in the coming months.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office and the Democratic majority in the Colorado legislature were preparing to quickly act to enact new limits had Kane overturned the current restraints. Concerns were building that a flood of campaign cash would be channeled to candidates the moment the limits were unwound, which could have reshuffled the 2022 political landscape.

Conservative nonprofit Advance Colorado and the national nonprofit Institute for Free Speech will continue their efforts to overturn the limits set by voters in 2002 at a future trial. The groups say the constraints violate First Amendment speech rights by limiting candidates’ ability to get their messages to voters. 

Dan Burrows, attorney for Advance Colorado, said the ruling could be appealed, but no decision has been made on that.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Greg Lopez, who is running for governor, and state Rep. Rod Pelton, of Cheyenne Wells, who is running for state Senate, along with former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House. 

They each testified that the current law makes it difficult to raise money, though Kane noted that they were raising money or, in the case of House, donating, before the lawsuit was filed. Lopez opened his campaign account and started accepting contributions in 2019. 

Advance Colorado argued that a provision allowing some candidates to accept double the contribution limits if they agree to limit their spending is unfair. Republican Heidi Ganahl, competing with Lopez for the gubernatorial nomination, accepted those limits and raised at least $138,000 in higher contributions before changing her mind.

Burrows said the limits prevent challengers from running for office or hinder them when they do.

“To have any legitimate chance, a person has to be able to put some of their own money in,” Burrows said during closing arguments Thursday. “It disadvantages people from poor neighborhoods who tend to be racial or ethnic minorities, it disadvantages women.”

Burrows noted that despite inflation adjustments, the limits haven’t kept up with rising costs. Most notably, the $400 limit for state lawmakers hasn’t changed since 2002.

“It significantly restricts the amount of funding for candidates to run an effective campaign,” he said.

Kane agreed that the donation limits are likely too low, and also noted that Advance Colorado presented evidence that the average cost of a competitive legislative contest rose from about “$82,000 to $232,000 in just 12 years.”

The judge agreed with the argument by Assistant Colorado Attorney General Michael Kotlarczyk that a full trial is needed on the issue. 

“The preliminary injunction is a drastic remedy,” Kotlarczyk said in asking the judge to reject it. “The plaintiffs are seeking to disrupt the status quo that has prevailed in Colorado for the last 20 years.”

Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver who leads the school’s Center on American Politics, served as an expert witness for Advance Colorado. He began analyzing campaign finance data last summer, finding that Colorado’s limits favor incumbents.

“My impression is that the campaign finance limits make it somewhat harder for challengers to mount campaigns in Colorado,” he said during the hearing. 

But Kotlarczyk noted that the attorney general’s legal team received Masket’s analysis late last week, and he questioned some of the numbers, including one table that said Republican state Senate candidate Suzanne Taheri (then known as Suzanne Staiert) spent $2.6 million on the contest she lost in 2020. Taheri only spent about $86,000, according to campaign finance reports. 

It appears the number included outside spending, which has soared since the limits took effect in 2004.

“The (independent expenditure committee) money shows that the money is out there, that people are interested in spending in these races,” Burrows said. “It is the system that Colorado has set up that includes these limits that funnels that money into independent spending. And it’s independent spending that quashes the candidates’ messages and harms challengers.”

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @fishnette