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A side-by-side photo of Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough
Denver mayoral candidates Mike Johnston, left, and Kelly Brough. (File photos)

The messaging in Denver’s mayoral runoff turned negative in the final stretch leading up to Tuesday’s election, with both sides taking shots at the other.

Outside groups continued to spend heavily through the week, though mostly on one side. Fundraising and spending by the two candidates remained relatively even.

Former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough attacked former state Sen. Mike Johnston, saying that his wealthy, out-of-state supporters were trying to “buy this race.” Her campaign also aired a video ad saying “maybe these guys think Denver is for sale.” 

Advancing Denver, the super PAC backing Johnston funded by those out-of-state donors, has spent at least $4.7 million, including on two mailers attacking Brough for “a history of helping corporate polluters” and leading the state’s biggest corporate lobbying group at the chamber.

Meanwhile, turnout through Thursday was less than 19%, at about 83,000 votes of more than 447,000 ballots mailed out. Final turnout in the 2019 mayoral runoff was 41%, with about 37% of all the ballots returned on the final day of voting.

Voters have until 7 p.m. Tuesday to return their ballots at drop boxes or vote centers. It’s too late to mail in a ballot.

Outside money plays a significant role in mayoral contest

Super PAC Advancing Denver sent a mailer criticizing Kelly Brough on environmental issues, top, while her campaign aired a TV and digital ad criticizing Mike Johnston for depending on the super PAC that is taking most of its money from billionaires, bottom.

Candidate spending in the mayoral contest has been dwarfed by the spending of the super PACs supporting Brough and Johnston, the top two finishers in the April 4 mayoral race that featured 16 candidates. Since no candidate received more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters, Brough and Johnston, advanced to the runoff. 

The influence of super PACs comes despite a new Denver program called the Fair Elections Fund, which aimed to keep big money out of city races. It limits donations to participating candidates to $500 per individual, with taxpayer-funded matching of 9 to 1 for donations of $50 or less.

Super PACs, however, are not subject to the program and can raise unlimited amounts of money.

Advancing Denver had spent more than $4.7 million as of Sunday afternoon on mailers, TV and digital ads and more supporting Johnston, with half that coming in the runoff.

A Better Denver, which supports Brough, has spent more than $1.5 million, but only 35% of that was dedicated to the runoff. 

Two-thirds of A Better Denver’s money came from Colorado donors, while only 32% of Advancing Denver’s money came from Colorado.

Top donors to Advancing Denver through Friday include:

  • LinkedIn founder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman at $1.8 million, with half that in the runoff
  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at $500,000, all for the runoff
  • Former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry at $450,000 with $150,000 of that aimed at the runoff
  • Hedge fund manager Steve Mandel at $350,000, with $100,000 of that for the runoff

Brough criticized the money being spent by Advancing Denver.

“I think it’s not fair to Denver voters,” she said at a news conference last week. “I think that races should be won based on people locally saying ‘this is what we care about.’”

Johnston’s spokeswoman, Jordan Fuja, countered that his actual campaign is financed by some 4,000 small donors.

“Unlike donors to Kelly Brough’s PAC, the vast majority of people donating to Advancing Denver do not have business in front of the city nor are they prominent Republican donors,” she said in a statement. Advancing Denver donors “want to see Denver become a proof-point for the rest of the nation in how to successfully run a progressive city that takes on tough challenges.”

Top donors to A Better Denver, the group supporting Brough, include:

  • The National Association of Realtors at $471,000, all donated before the runoff
  • The ​​Colorado Construction Industry Coalition at $61,000, all donated before the runoff
  • Elaine Appel, a retired Centennial businesswoman, at $60,000, all for the runoff
  • Pete Coors, a member of the Golden beer family and former GOP U.S. Senate candidate, at $50,000, all for the runoff
  • Billionaire businessman Phil Anschutz at $10,000 for the runoff

Candidates don’t have control over and cannot coordinate with independent expenditure committees, also known as super PACs. They are supposed to be independent of candidate campaigns. 

Denver requires that such committees report the spending and accompanying donations within 48 hours.

But those reports likely don’t include all spending and donations. Denver requires reporting only for direct interaction with voters, such as advertising or canvassing. So, spending on consultants, polling and other activities doesn’t need to be reported, and neither do the donations behind them.

Candidate fundraising is relatively even

Brough has slightly outraised Johnston, at $2 million to $1.9 million, but Johnston has a slim advantage during runoff fundraising.

Brough received $187,500 for the runoff and $750,000 for the general election from the Fair Elections Fund matching program, making up about 47% of her fundraising total. Johnston received $153,385 for the runoff and nearly $614,000 for the general election, making up about 39% of his total.

Of their remaining cash raised, 96% of Brough’s came from Coloradans compared with 65% for Johnston. Each of the candidates received $5,000 from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver small donor committee, though Brough received that maximum donation during the general election while Johnston received $3,000 for the runoff.

Brough has outspent Johnston in the runoff $707,000 to $467,000 through May 31.

Denver’s mayor oversees a city government that employs 11,000 people with a $1.6 billion budget. The next mayor will be paid nearly $206,000 annually.

Click here for more information on the candidates.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....