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For Colorado Governor Hopefuls, Cost Of Running A Limiting Factor

Sandra Fish for KUNC
Ballots from the 2016 Republican state assembly.

The race for governor is shaping up to be a Wild West affair with record spending. Through the end of 2017, 11 candidates raised more than $10.5 million.

On Saturday, Democrats and Republicans will meet for their nominating assemblies, one of two ways for candidates to make the June 26 ballot. Prospective candidates must either get 30 percent of the delegates at the assemblies or have submitted enough petition signatures to the Secretary of State.

Either way, candidates are looking at spending massive amounts of money.

"As everyone knows, running for office, particularly this year, is a mega-dollar process," said businessman Noel Ginsberg. "It's the way the system works."

Ginsberg opted to collect signatures to make the ballot, but dropped out of the Democratic field in March - after spending $300,000 of his own money.

Credit Sandra Fish for KUNC
Noel Ginsberg in his office a few weeks after dropping out of the Democratic contest for governor.

  "Just getting on to the ballot through petition doesn't mean you're competitive. Without somewhere, we believed between $800,000 and a million in cash available to spend on media, we couldn't be competitive in the primary," he said.

Big money potentially overshadows the impact of everyday voters as, says Common Cause Colorado Executive director Amanda Gonzalez.

"When we talk about a lot of people with big money, our fear at Common Cause is that that's going to drown out the people who don't have big money," Gonzalez said. "If you are millionaire, your voice should be heard. But if you're a 'tenionaire' your voice should be heard."

The crowded field to replace term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has seen other attrition.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter entered then dropped out of the race in 2017. Two other candidates dropped out in recent months. All cited the challenge of raising money in a contest that features at least two candidates willing to put millions into their campaigns.

Former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo was considered the GOP's front runner at one point. But he raised only half his $150,000 goal in the last three months of 2017 before getting out.

"You have to make this decision," Tancredo said. "Are you here to win a primary or are you here to win the general? And of course it's the latter."

Two self-funding candidates - Republican Victor Mitchell and Democratic Congressman Jared Polis - have purchased $1 million each in TV ads.

Mitchell seeded his campaign with $3 million of his own cash, while Polis has spent a total of $10 million on his campaigns since 2000.

But Colorado isn't unique. Nearly half of the 36 governorships up for election this November are open seats.

"It's everybody's game," said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "And by that, I mean the candidates are raising massive amounts of money themselves. There are interest groups supporting or opposing them who are raising massive amounts of money in highly contested races."

You have to make this decision. Are you here to win a primary or are you here to win the general? And of course it's the latter.
- Tim Tancredo

  At least five Colorado candidates - Republicans Cynthia Coffman, Doug Robinson and Stapleton and Democrats Michael Johnston and Jared Polius - have independent spending committees backing them. There's also an independent spending group working against Coffman.

Those committees can accept unlimited donations and spend as much as they want, though they aren't supposed to coordinate with candidates.

These independent expenditure groups, also known as IEs or IECs, are often funded by wealthy out-of-state donors. Ginsberg says that makes them a threat.

"IEs are a dangerous tool," he said. "They really provide a lot of influence in these campaigns, many times raising more in Its than a candidate will raise for him or her self."

But Tancredo said the committees are a natural result of the limits placed on individual contributions to candidates. Colorado has the second-lowest donation limits in the nation for gubernatorial candidates, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.

"There is no way that you're going to raise the $5 to $10 million the race will probably take without an IEC," he said. "When you try to limit campaign contributions by individuals, it's like a game of whack a mole. You hit it here but it pops up there. You hit it there, it pops up someplace else."

Meanwhile, the big money in these highly contested races are also fueled by another factor, according to Roth Barber.

"The other dynamic that's going on in 2018 is the upcoming census in 2020, followed by the redistricting," she said. "It will determine who holds the redistricting pen after the 2020 census."

She says the National Institute on Money in Politics will be watching it all, including self-funding candidates like Mitchell and Polis.

"We're going to be watching to see how many candidates are pouring a lot of their own money into these races and seeing how effective that is because typically the more money you put into your race and the more you rely on your own money, the less successful you are, in fact," said Roth Barber.

Through April 11, two of six candidates who submitted petitions had made the ballot: Democrat Johnston, a former state senator, and Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton. But Stapleton Tuesday abandoned the petition process because of controversy over signature gatherers.

Stapleton will compete with Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Colorado Springs businessman Barry Farrah and others at the Republican assembly in Boulder. Mitchell and investor Doug Robinson are waiting to see if their petition signatures will put them on the ballot.

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, Polis and others will compete at the Democratic assembly in Broomfield. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and Polis are also waiting to see if petition signatures will be verified.

Sandra Fish is a Colorado data journalist specializing in politics and government. She’s worked for newspapers in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. And she’s written about politics for Politics Daily, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera America and Roll Call.
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