Two decades ago, Republicans controlled Colorado’s political landscape, from the governor’s office to the legislature to the state’s congressional delegation.
Wealthy Democratic donors teamed up to reverse their party’s fortune, routing their money through a series of political nonprofits and political committees to organize voters to try to dominate the airwaves. One of those dark-money groups was ProgressNow Colorado.
The strategy worked. Democrats took control of the legislature and won control of two additional congressional seats in 2004. In 2006, they won the governor’s office. With the exception of 2014, the party has only expanded its power since.
ProgressNow Colorado, an irreverent organization that doesn’t reveal its donors, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. It has outlived similar peer groups of the same vintage. Today, with Colorado firmly in Democrats’ hands, it may not have the same mission as when it began, but the nonprofit remains a player on the state’s political stage.
“For the better part of two decades, ProgressNow has been an aggressive and effective part of Colorado’s progressive infrastructure,” former Republican state Rep. Rob Witwer, who co-wrote a book on Democrats’ takeover of the state, told The Colorado Sun. “Judging from ProgressNow’s success at framing issues, it’s been a great bang for the buck for its donors.”
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Witwer and former 9News political reporter Adam Schrager published “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should be Scared)” in 2010. The book told the story of how the Democratic donor network and groups like ProgressNow Colorado shifted Colorado politics.
The ProgressNow model has spread to more than half the states in the nation.
Kelly Maher, a Republican activist who used to lead Compass Colorado, effectively the conservative version of ProgressNow Colorado, said ProgressNow’s challenge moving forward will be finding where to fit in given the state’s Democratic dominance.
Colorado Democrats these days are fighting Republicans less and increasingly facing internal conflicts.
“In the current landscape, much of the political tension in Colorado is going to be intraparty within the Democrats, rather than interparty with Republicans,” Maher said. “And ProgressNow is really going to have to struggle with that existential crisis of what that looks like in their advocacy.”
Rapid response before it became the norm
Michael Huttner set aside his law practice to form ProgressNow Colorado in 2003, serving as the group’s first executive director.
Huttner sought to mobilize Democrats via the internet through blogging and private chat groups anchored in geography and policy interest. Call it a pre-social media version of “rapid response” — the practice of attacking opponents quickly and cleverly on social media.
Huttner had a background in politics: He ran Jared Polis’ successful campaign for a state Board of Education seat in 2000. Huttner also was a policy adviser to Gov. Roy Romer.
The work of ProgressNow Colorado and its companion groups was paired with infusions of big money from Polis, philanthropist and Democratic political donor Pat Stryker, and entrepreneurs Rutt Bridges and Tim Gill.
Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado GOP chairman, said ProgressNow Colorado was born in an era when Democrats started indirectly spending on campaigns. Instead of giving money to candidate campaigns, they routed cash through political spending groups, like super PACs, and nonprofits like ProgressNow to influence voters.
“There is no doubt in my mind that ProgressNow and other leftist organizations fundamentally changed the rules of political campaign finance 20 years ago,” Wadhams said.
But, he added, “Republicans kind of created the environment for that to succeed, when some Republican legislative majorities kind of went off the rails on some social issues,” including LGBTQ equality and abortion.
ProgressNow Colorado used catchy tactics to contrast Democrats with Republicans.
In 2004, former Colorado State University President Al Yates, who left CSU the year before, took over as president of the ProgressNow board.
“Al Yates demanded that we have one of the top 10 political websites in the country,” Huttner said.
So Huttner hired Democratic strategist Bobby Clark, who worked on Democrat Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, to build a digital presence and bring the snark. Maria Handley, fresh from Democrat Ken Salazar’s winning 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, came to the organization as outreach director.
In the 2006 Colorado gubernatorial election, the group coined the “Both Ways Bob” moniker for Bob Beauprez, a Republican who gave up his seat in Congress to run for governor against Democrat Bill Ritter, the Denver district attorney.
“We did silly videos,” said Handley, who is now executive director of the Wilderness Society Action Fund. She said she and Clark dressed up in a cow costume and visited the golf course near Beauprez’s home, trying to do “things in a different way to bring light to topics that in most ways were very serious, but trying to bring into more of a mainstream way of connecting with a broader set of individuals.”
Ritter ultimately defeated Beauprez in 2006, succeeding two-term Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, and starting a string of Democratic gubernatorial victories that hasn’t been broken.
The group “became a megaphone for grassroots motivation, fundraising, and outrage. In time, ProgressNow would have a major impact on the political landscape,” Witwer and Schrager wrote in their book.
The two noted that “ProgressNow’s strategy is not so much to build up Democrats as it is to tear down Republicans, using opposition research and other hardball tactics.”
Stunts not always a success
ProgressNow Colorado’s irreverence has sometimes stirred controversy.
In 2013, ProgressNow’s digital ads encouraging millennials to sign up for Obamacare drew criticism for being juvenile. One of the ads featured a young woman holding birth control pills and posing with a man. The caption for the photo was “my health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers.” The ads also included images of men doing keg stands and women doing “shotskis.”
In 2018, an aide to Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, helped Alan Franklin, ProgressNow’s political director and a longtime employee of the nonprofit, sneak into the Capitol to place a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin below an empty spot that was supposed to be filled by a portrait of President Donald Trump. The aide, Katie March, lost her security badge and Democrats were criticized for enabling the prank.
And ProgressNow Colorado’s election track record wasn’t flawless.
ProgressNow created a website saying “Cory Gardner is catfishing Colorado” in 2014 when the GOP congressman took on incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. A banner with the phrase also flew over a Denver Broncos game.
Udall lost his reelection bid to Gardner that year, and the GOP also won the races for attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer.
Of the Democratic candidates on the statewide ballot in 2014, only Gov. John Hickenlooper managed to eke out a reelection victory that year against Beauprez, who was running a second time to lead the state.
In 2020, Hickenlooper defeated Gardner’s reelection effort in a Senate contest that saw ProgressNow trot out “Cardboard Cory” to make the point that the GOP senator didn’t appear in public that often.
After 20 years hanging on, looking to the future
ProgressNow Colorado wasn’t the only political nonprofit born out of Democrats’ political turnaround in the state in the early 2000s. But it’s still standing where others have shut down.
Colorado Media Matters, a media watchdog nonprofit patterned after the national Media Matters, launched in 2006. But it closed in 2009. Colorado Ethics Watch launched in 2006. It shut down at the end of 2017 because of a lack of funding.
Witwer said the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank founded in 1985 and run by Jon Caldara, is probably the only Colorado conservative group “that has been such a consistent presence in this space.”
ProgressNow may still be up and running because of its relatively low operating costs.
The nonprofit spent only $182,000 in 2004. That year Huttner earned $55,000 as executive director. By 2020, the latest election year for which tax forms are publicly available, ProgressNow Colorado spent nearly $3.6 million, a fraction of which went to then-executive director Ian Silverii’s salary.
Silverii, who is married to Democratic U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen, led the organization from 2016 until 2021. He’s now consulting, including with ProgressNow groups in other states. He declined to talk with The Sun about the group’s legacy.
What is a dark-money group?
The Colorado Sun refers to political nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their donors like other political spending committees as dark-money groups.
ProgressNow is what The Sun refers to as a dark-money group because it doesn’t disclose its donors. But in the nonprofit’s early days, its backers likely included Polis, Bridges, Stryker and Gill. (Polis was honored at a Casa Bonita gala Saturday celebrating ProgressNow Colorado’s anniversary while Bridges was a sponsor.)
A search of nonprofit tax returns reveals that the organization has received grants from other liberal, dark-money nonprofits, including Everytown for Gun Safety, the Sixteen Thirty Fund and Education Reform Now Advocacy.
Sara Loflin, who worked for environmental nonprofits previously, took over as ProgressNow Colorado executive director in fall 2021. She said moving forward, the group needs to be “real trailblazers when it comes to changing media and online dynamics.”
Loflin said she’s been coping with breast cancer during most of the two years she’s led the organization.
“I think my big thing is really taking some time now to evaluate where we’re going,” Loflin said. “What is it we need (to be)?”