Money flowed into Colorado politics earlier this year when hardline gun rights supporters attempted to recall a state representative who supported Colorado’s extreme risk protection order law (ERPO), a controversial piece of gun legislation. But now, two months since that effort failed, the ability to trace where some of those funds came from and how they were spent is limited by Colorado’s campaign finance laws.
The effort to recall Colorado democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan was short-lived but intense. State and national gun groups got involved, as did presidential candidates. The Colorado Secretary of State’s office approved the Sullivan recall petition on May 13. A month later, after two national gun control groups donated a combined $110,000 to fight the recall effort, the petition was withdrawn.
Colorado state Rep. Tom Sullivan goes door-to-door, asking his constituents not to sign the petition to oust him from office.
Scott Franz / KUNC
Campaign finance records show that the money from Everytown For Gun Safety and Giffords, two large gun control groups, went to Democracy First Colorado, an issue committee with the registered purpose of opposing recalls of democratic lawmakers. Democracy First has primarily spent on mailers, internet ads, research and consulting, according to reports submitted to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. With the Sullivan recall petition withdrawn, organizers say those funds are now going towards fighting the recalls of two other Colorado democrats as well as the governor, all of whom are being targeted, in part, over their support of the ERPO legislation.
As for spending against state Rep. Sullivan, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO), a Colorado-based no-compromise gun group, went after him for his co-sponsorship of the ERPO bill, which was signed into law earlier this year. RMGO opened up a recall office, gathered signatures outside of gun ranges, got their message out on Facebook Live and ran a text campaign to collect donations.
According to Dudley Brown, RMGO’s executive director, the group raised roughly $38,000. Brown says his group spent $45,000 on the Sullivan recall, mostly on a signature-gathering company. As for plans for any remaining funds Brown says, “do the math.”
In 2013, when two Colorado state senators lost their seats in a controversial recall election over their support for gun control, RMGO reported $916,308 in revenue, up from $199,815 the previous year. In 2013, the group reported $814,771 in expenses, including nearly $300,000 in advertising and promotion. Those records don’t show how much RMGO spent on the 2013 recall effort specifically.
As for the recent spending on the Sullivan recall, it is impossible to check RMGO’s numbers with any state entity. Campaign finance law in Colorado does not require RMGO or other groups like it to register or report how much they spend on recalling a politician, thanks to something called the “major purpose test.”
The Major Purpose Test
As outlined in the Colorado State Constitution, and defined in statute, an entity is only required to register as an issue committee if its major purpose is supporting or opposing a ballot issue. In Colorado, a recall petition is considered to be a ballot issue.
Issue committees are required by Colorado law to report what they collect in donations and what they spend in advancing their stated purpose.
But what is the meaning of “major purpose?” Political groups that are active on multiple fronts may not view their support of a ballot issue as their “major purpose.”
“Ultimately and initially, it’s the entity themselves that would need to determine whether or not they meet that major purpose test,” said Steve Bouey, campaign finance manager with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. “The Secretary of State’s office isn’t allowed to give legal guidance to anyone. So that organization, maybe working in conjunction with their own attorney, would determine if they meet that ‘major purpose’ test that’s laid out in statute.”
If RMGO had registered with the Colorado Secretary of State as an issue committee, it would have been required to report what it collected and spent on the Sullivan recall effort. But RMGO confirmed that because its “major purpose” isn’t to recall Sullivan, it decided that it didn’t have to register as an issue committee. As a Second Amendment advocacy group, its activities are wide-ranging: from filing legal challenges against gun laws, to lobbying politicians, to fundraising from members.
RMGO’s Dudley Brown spoke to reporters at a press conference in May to announce a lawsuit challenging the state’s Extreme Risk Protection order bill.
Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Because of these reporting requirements, the Secretary of State’s office does not know how much is being spent on recall elections by entities that don’t have to register as issue committees.
“The major source of information we have on recall elections and activities surrounding recall elections are those groups that have registered either as an issue committee or small-scale issue committee and then ultimately disclose reports,” Bouey said. “Any sort of info that is not disclosed with our office, at this point in time, our office is not looking into it.”
As an organization focused on defending democrats against recall elections, Democracy First Colorado, which opposed RMGO in the Sullivan recall fight, has to file detailed contribution and expenditure reports with the Secretary of State.
RMGO, on the other hand, does not. That makes it difficult for members of the public, including donors, to know how donations were spent.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed legislation to increase transparency and enforcement around campaign finance but did not directly address the major purpose test.
RMGO Looks To Washington
Following recent mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, some Republican lawmakers in Washington have suggested a federal “red flag” law, or extreme risk protection order law, could be a tool to disarm potential shooters. President Donald Trump has signaled support as well.
On Wednesday, Everytown for Gun Safety for its part, announced plans to spend more than $1 million in advertising in an effort to pressure U.S. senators to act on gun control.
“Unfortunately, like six years ago, after the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy, we’re back in the same kind of fight,” RMGO’s Dudley Brown said in a Facebook video on Aug. 8. “Maybe, though, bigger. Because this time it’s Republicans and Democrats fighting to take your guns.”
He then asked viewers to text a number that would text back with a donation prompt.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.