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Big Bucks Don't Mean Big Wins For Colorado's Candidates

Sandra Fish
Jared Polis speaking at a campaign event.

The 2018 contest for Colorado governor is shaping up to be a battle of the big bucks.

One wealthy Republican already put $3 million into his campaign. Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, who entered the race mid-June, has spent $10 million on his campaigns since 2000.

But money doesn’t always buy political victory.

“Generally speaking, money is an essential factor in an election, but not sufficient to guarantee a successful campaign,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “I think it’s good news for those of us who care about democratic integrity that you can’t just waltz in and buy yourself a seat in Congress or a governorship.”

Studies of national races by the nonpartisan nonprofit, as well as those by the National Institute for Money in State Politics, illustrate Krumholz’s conclusion.

So does a KUNC examination of more than 30 Colorado political contests since 2002. That analysis looked at self-funders who spent $100,000 or more in congressional contests or statewide races.

The candidates spent a total of $23 million of their own cash on campaigns. But the self-funding candidate only succeeded in eight elections – and in five of those races, Polis was the candidate.

Krumholz says successful campaigns need more than cash.

“Candidates need money of course, and they need lots of it, but they also need charisma and connection with the voters and appealing ideas,” she said.

Many of the candidates KUNC looked at never made it to the election itself. One candidate dropped out a year before the primary. Another five candidates spent nearly $2 million dollars total and they didn’t make the primary. In 2006, for example, Marc Holtzman put $835,000 into his gubernatorial campaign, but he failed to gather enough signatures to make the ballot.

In another nine races, self-funders simply lost the primary.Just a year ago, former Colorado State University athletic director and businessman Jack Graham spent nearly $2 million of his own money running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

He finished second.

“Historically, in states like Colorado, funding your own campaign does not necessarily mean you’re going to win,” said Dick Wadhams, a longtime Republican consultant who ran Graham’s campaign. “Traditionally the people who fund their own campaigns have not been successful.”

But Polis seems to be the Colorado exception to that rule.

Polis is a multimillionaire who made his money in the digital world. In his first-ever race for office – a statewide board of education seat in 2000 -– he spent  $1 million and won by a mere 90 votes. When he first ran for Congress in 2008, he plunked down nearly $6 million, much of it going to defeat two fellow Democrats.

“It’s important for the Democratic candidates to be competitive with the Republican candidates,” Polis said of the governor’s race. “You already have Republican candidates putting millions of dollars in. However the Democrats raise their money, if we’re not competitive we aren’t going to get our message out.”

Polis isn’t the only candidate in the 2018 governor’s race with deep pockets.

Republican Victor Mitchell has already put $3 million dollars into his own effort to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat leaving after eight years in office because of term limits.

Mitchell, a former one-term state lawmaker and an entrepreneur who owns a firm that lends money to small developers, emphasizes his nonpolitical experience.

“We have to have an outsider,” he said.

But he’s running for a job that pays only $90,000 annually.

“I’m obviously not running for the salary,” Mitchell said. “I love Colorado and I’m deeply, deeply concerned about the direction our state’s going. ... I write checks. I’m not afraid to invest in something I truly believe in and I truly believe in this.”

Wadhams said that’s a typical attitude for wealthy candidates.

“Wealthy individuals who run for public office are not motivated because of some personal ambition to serve in public office,” he said. “They really are motivated to run for public office because of an agenda they believe in. They’re willing to put their own money out there to pursue that agenda.”

It’s possible other wealthy candidates could enter the race to replace Hickenlooper. GOP Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who spent nearly $454,000 on his first race in 2010, is considered a contender, as is Republican Kent Thiry, the head of dialysis giant DaVita. Graham might also consider another shot at a statewide race.

Despite what wealthy candidates spend, they’re likely to be outdone next year by another source:  unlimited independent spending.

So-called super political action committees and nonprofits that work independently of campaigns and parties are responsible for many of the TV ads and mailers in campaigns these days. 

Said Polis: “Whatever candidates raise and spend, whether it's from wealthy donors, whether it's from themselves, whatever they raise and spent, that could be dwarfed by dark money, by outside money.”

Here’s a look at the KUNC self-funding candidate analysis:

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