Colorado may be the No. 1 election battleground in the U.S. for Republicans, if the money pouring into the state is any measure.
Independent groups reported spending $9.4 million on federal campaigns there between Sept. 1 and Oct. 12, more than in any other state, with $7.5 million -- 80 percent -- going to help Republican candidates, records show. Leading the way were two groups advised by strategist Karl Rove, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which said yesterday they have raised $56 million for races nationwide, exceeding their $50 million goal.
The state may provide the best measure of the power of outside money in American elections this year. Critics say a Supreme Court decision that freed corporations to spend funds from their treasuries on elections has spurred a flood of special interest money that’s mainly helping Republicans.
“You can’t have your television on for 10 or 15 minutes without seeing at least two or three ads saying that someone shouldn’t have been born,” said Kenneth Bickers, chairman of the political science department at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It’s the stakes that drive campaign ads. This is a state where Democrats might be able to hold a seat or Republicans could pick it up.”
While Colorado supported Obama in 2008, it lined up for Republicans in nine of the 10 previous presidential elections. It also went from having two Republican senators and only two Democratic members of the House to the opposite.
Now, Democratic Senator Michael Bennet is facing a “tossup” race against Republican Ken Buck, according to the Cook Political Report. And Colorado features three House Democrats, Ed Perlmutter, John Salazar and Betsy Markey, whose close contests also make them vulnerable to Republican attacks.
With an 8.2 percent unemployment rate, Colorado is beating the national average, yet isn’t faring as well as neighbors such as Kansas, Nebraska and Utah. Buck, like the pro-Republican outside groups, has focused on the issue of government spending, trying to appeal to voters’ concern over the deficit.
Colorado is “very much a swing state, and Republicans think they can drive it back” into the party’s control, said Timothy Wirth, a Democrat and former Colorado senator.
Republicans need to gain 39 House seats and 10 Senate seats to win control of Congress.
‘Hijacking’ of Democracy
So much money has flowed into Colorado that the state has become a focal point of complaints by Democrats about tax-exempt organizations not naming their donors. David Plouffe, an adviser to President Barack Obama, last week singled out Colorado, saying it’s part of a “hijacking of our democracy” nationwide.
The money -- most of which is directed at Bennet’s race against Buck, a favorite of Tea Party activists critical of federal government power -- can have an outsized effect in Colorado. By comparison, outside groups reported spending about $600,000 less in Pennsylvania through Oct. 12, even though the state has almost three times as many voting-age residents, U.S. Census data shows.
Colorado “has emerged as an important barometer of national trends,” said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. Because Bennet was appointed to replace Ken Salazar, Obama’s choice for Interior secretary, it’s easier to make the race “about Obama and the Democrats than in other places,” he said.
American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS spent $3.6 million through Oct. 12 to oppose Bennet. “His mistakes: costing us money,” says one American Crossroads ad that focuses on Bennet’s support for Obama’s health-care legislation. A Crossroads GPS spot says Bennet is on a “spending spree.”
Virtually all that money went toward television ads. American Crossroads is also undertaking a get-out-the-vote effort to bring more Republicans to the polls on Nov. 2.
“All of the political calculus tells us that this is a critical race for control of the U.S. Senate and one that’s very winnable,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the groups. In recent polls, Buck has led Bennet by an average of 3 percentage points, according to the Real Clear Politics website.
American Crossroads discloses its donors; Crossroads GPS is set up as an issue-advocacy group and doesn’t. In its last report, American Crossroads disclosed two $1 million donations from Texas businessmen Trevor Rees-Jones and Robert Rowling. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine called on Rove to reveal Crossroads GPS’s backers. “If Mr. Rove has nothing to hide, this shouldn’t be a problem,” Kaine said in a statement.
Collegio called Kaine’s remarks “a political ploy” designed to distract Americans from concerns about the economy.
“I’m helping both of these groups by raising money for them as is allowed under the laws of the United States,” Rove said on “Fox News Sunday” on Oct. 10.
Rove and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie helped conceive of the new groups.
The spending by outside organizations is helping Republicans overcome a deficit in party fundraising. While the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $4.4 million in Colorado on ads to oppose Buck, its Republican counterpart spent $1.6 million to take on Bennet through Oct. 12. Bennet himself had four times as much cash as Buck as of July 21, the last reporting date.
Republican-leaning groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund and the American Future Fund are also spending money in Colorado, along with the Club for Growth. After Rove’s groups, the Chamber led the spending with about $1.1 million in ads.
Pro-Democratic groups including the League of Conservation Voters and Working America, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor federation, are spending more of their money on ground operations. The biggest outside expenditure came from Campaign Money Watch, a group that advocates stronger campaign-finance laws, which reported $730,000 for an ad opposing Buck.
While Democratic-leaning groups were largely “absent,” pro-Republican groups had run about 5,500 ads through Sept. 15, said Franz, a government professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The Chamber is mainly focusing on Denver and Grand Junction, and the Crossroads groups are mostly targeting the Denver and Colorado Springs markets, he said.
“This is the year” for Republicans to win back seats, said E. Scott Adler, a political science professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “They’re going to seize on those opportunities.”