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Voters enter Augustana Lutheran Church to cast their ballots Nov. 8, 2022, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Denver’s Fair Election Fund, the taxpayer-funded campaign contribution matching program approved by voters in 2018, is having a greater impact on city council fundraising than in the crowded and more closely watched mayoral contest. 

The fund accounted for about 45% of the $5.3 million raised by the 17 mayoral candidates through the end of February. If you remove the $750,000 Andy Rougeot loaned his campaign from the equation, the Fair Election Fund share rises to 52%.

But money from the fund accounts for 64% of the $1.5 million raised by nine candidates running for two at-large Denver City Council seats. And it makes up nearly 70% of the $2.6 million raised by the 29 candidates vying for 11 city council district seats.

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This is the first municipal election in Denver where the Fair Election Fund has been a factor. Its purpose is to encourage candidates to raise small donations, with every donation of $50 or less matched nine times. A total of $8 million across all eligible races is available, with the last distribution before the April 4 election set to be made next week.

The small-donor intention of the fund appears to be working in the city council race.

All seven at-large city council candidates receiving Fair Election Fund money have received more money from the fund than from individual donors, meaning they’re attracting plenty of small donors.

The same goes for the 25 candidates vying for city council in individual districts.

The effect on the mayoral race is a bit less clear. 

The top two fundraisers in the mayor’s race have thus far received the lowest proportion of their total raised from the fund. Former Denver Metro Chamber CEO Kelly Brough’s $531,000 in Fair Election Fund cash accounts for 46% of her total, while former Sen. Mike Johnston’s $253,000 makes up 35% of his total.

The other 11 candidates participating in the fund received more from it than they raised in donations from others. Rougeot is one of only four mayoral candidates not participating in the Fair Election Fund, which limits the maximum they may accept per donor to $500. 

Critics of the Fair Election Fund say it’s pushing big spending in the mayoral race to outside groups. Those groups, known as independent expenditure committees or super PACs, can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money but can’t coordinate with candidates. 

Outside groups had spent nearly $1.8 million in the mayoral contest, compared with only $253,000 on City Council races, based on reports filed through Sunday.

“There’s a vacuum, and that vacuum is being filled by independent expenditure groups,” said Scott Martinez, a Denver election lawyer who is the registered agent for one of the super PACs that supports state Rep. Leslie Herod for mayor. 

Owen Perkins, president of CleanSlateNow Action, the group behind the creation of Denver’s Fair Election Fund, said the city’s 2023 election is unique. Unlimited campaign money spent by super PACs had just come on the scene the last time the mayor’s seat was open in 2011, just after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision that opened up the political spending floodgates.

“I don’t like the outside spending and the way that impacts races,” Perkins said. “It’s legal, but it’s not right.”

Martinez said it would be difficult for Denver to limit or eliminate super PAC influence on municipal races.

“If we want relief from big corporate interests in politics, it has to happen at a national scale, at a statewide scale,” he said. “Denver can’t do it alone.”

Advancing Denver, the super PAC supporting Johnston, has now spent nearly $932,000 after making additional TV ad buys. That tops the $563,000 spent by A Better Denver, which is supporting Brough. Ready Denver spent more than $122,000 supporting Herod.

And Denver Firefighters – IAFF Local 858 spent more than $120,000 to support City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega in the mayoral contest.

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Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette