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Nearly $6 million was spent on Colorado’s legislative primaries. Here’s how it affected the outcome

In 10 races where state-level super PACs, some funded by hidden sources, spent to help Democratic candidates viewed as more moderate, eight won
An election ballot drop box, seen here near Bayfield Town Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (Matt Hollinshead/Durango Herald)

Nearly $6 million was spent by political groups on Colorado’s legislative primaries this year, with the vast majority of that money being directed toward Democratic races for state House and Senate seats by groups seeking to help more moderate candidates beat their opponents.

In 10 races where state-level super PACs, some funded by hidden sources, spent to help Democratic candidates viewed as more moderate, eight won. The super PACs operate independently, buying mailers, digital ads and TV time to support or oppose candidates.

The spending this year was more than triple the $1.8 million spent on legislative primaries in 2020. And the results of the June 25 primaries will help shape the Democratic-controlled legislature for at least the next two years.

Here’s a closer look at the spending in legislative primaries this year:

The groups that backed more moderate Democrats and where there money came from

Of the $5.7 million in state-level super PAC spending in legislative primaries this year, 80% was devoted to Democratic contests.

That makes sense given that Democrats hold a supermajority in the House and a near-supermajority in the Senate, meaning the primary results have the power to steer the direction of policy at the Colorado Capitol. Some progressive measures considered by the legislature this year lived or died by a single Democratic vote.

Kent Thiry, the wealthy former CEO of the Denver-based dialysis giant DaVita, accounted for nearly a quarter of the money behind those PACs.

Thiry donated $1.24 million to Let Colorado Vote Action, a group formed just before the primary election that spent its money on TV and digital ads supporting more moderate candidates running in Democratic and Republican legislative primaries. The committee was the biggest spender among super PACs that tried to influence voters in this year’s Statehouse primaries.

The money was aimed to “stand up for the majority in the middle,” Thiry told The Sun in a statement last month.

Let Colorado Vote Action helped candidates like Democrat Cecelia Espenoza, a retired federal immigration judge, beat Rep. Tim Hernández, who was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, in House District 4 in northwestern Denver, and Aurora Public Schools Board Member Michael Carter, a Democrat, in his House District 36 primary race against Bryan Lindstrom, an APS teacher endorsed by the DSA. Both Espenoza and Carter won.

Thiry also gave $60,000 to Ready Colorado Action Fund, and $35,000 to Weld Strong, two Republican state-level super PACs.

The source of much of the money spent by political committees, however, remains unclear.

For instance, the super PAC A Whole Lot of People for Change, spent more than $1 million to support nine more moderate Democratic candidates, all but one of whom won. It was the second biggest spender in Colorado legislative primaries this year among political groups.

The group received $251,000 from Moving Colorado Forward and $235,000 from Colorado Democracy Action Fund, two other state-level super PACs funded in large part by Education Reform Now Advocacy and the Colorado League of Charter Schools, nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors.

A Whole Lot of People for Change also received $445,000 from the One Main Street Colorado, a super PAC funded by a nonprofit of the same name that also doesn’t disclose its donors.

A Whole Lot of People for Change’s stated mission is to support “pragmatic candidates … who believe in rebuilding Colorado’s middle class.”

The group supported Democratic primary candidates like Espenoza and Carter, as well as Lakewood City Councilwoman Rebekah Stewart in House District 30, former Thornton City Councilwoman Jacque Phillips in House District 31 and state Rep. Judy Amabile in Senate District 18.

Let Colorado Vote Action backed Stewart and Amabile, too. The Denver branch of the Democratic Socialists of America opposed Stewart and recommended that its members vote for her opponent, Kyra deGruy Kennedy.

The only primary candidate supported by A Whole Lot of People For Change who lost was Democrat Ethnie Treick, a former lobbyist for Xcel Energy, who was beaten in the House District 52 primary in Fort Collins by tax attorney Yara Zokaie. Let Colorado Vote Action also backed Treick.

Another state-level super PAC, Representation Matters, spent $656,000 supporting Aurora attorney Idris Keith against state Rep. Mike Weissman in Senate District 28.

All of the group’s $661,000 in funding came from Brighter Colorado Futures 527. That committee received $680,000 from a federal super PAC called Democracy Wins, which won’t report its funding until July 15. Another $25,000 came from the nonprofit Brighter Colorado Futures, which doesn’t disclose its donors.

Keith, who was backed by Let Colorado Vote Action, lost to Weissman by 6 percentage points.

Nonprofit One Main Street Colorado was the second-largest super PAC donor, giving $800,000 to its namesake super PAC and another $57,000 to Servicios Sigue Action Fund. The nonprofit doesn’t disclose its donors.

Andrew Short, the political consultant who runs the nonprofit, said in an email the group is “focused on expanding the middle class and making Colorado the small business hub of the nation.”

Short defended the group’s decision not to disclose its donors, saying it’s done to “protect our supporters from potential harassment by groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party.”

Short said the group has the support of labor groups, but records show it also has received donations in 2022 from Xcel Energy, the Apartment Association of Metro Denver and the Associated General Contractors of Colorado.

Who supported the more liberal Democratic legislative primary candidates

While much of the money spent on Colorado’s Democratic legislative primaries came from groups supporting more moderate candidates, their more liberal opponents also received some help.

Colorado Labor Action, funded by several labor unions, spent $728,000 to support five Democratic primary candidates, only two of whom – Zokaie and Weissman – won. That group’s money came from unions including the Colorado Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the AFL-CIO.

Colorado Labor Action backed Hernández and Lindstrom, as well as Rep. Julia Marvin, a candidate recommended by the Denver branch of the Democratic Socialists of America who lost to Phillips in House District 31.

The Colorado Working Families Party super PAC, another group that backed more liberal candidates in legislative primaries, spent only about $50,000 supporting only three candidates – Jovita Schiffer, who lost to Ambile, Zokaie and Rep. Junie Joseph, D-Boulder, who beat her primary challenger.

Wendy Howell, the party’s state director, called Short’s accusations about WFP members attacking One Main Street Colorado’s donors absurd.

“All the money gives them is access,” Howell said. “And time is just as valuable in the Capitol as anything else.”

Takeaways from the spending and the results

It would be easy to point to money as the deciding factor in all of the contests, but the data doesn’t totally bear that out.

In Senate District 28, where the most state-level super PAC money was spent, about 70% of the $1 million spent on the contest went to defeat Weissman, but he still beat Keith.

In the Democratic primary in House District 52, which ranked No. 4 in terms of political group spending, Zokaie beat Treick. There was about $270,000 spent to defeat Zokaie, while about $240,000 was spent to help her.

But it would also be wrong to write off the effect of the outside spending entirely.

In the races where one candidate benefited from political group spending and the other received zero help, the latter always lost. That includes Rep. Elisabeth Epps in House District 6, Westminster City Councilman Obi Ezeadi in Senate District 19 and DeGruy Kennedy in House District 30.

Having friends at the Capitol also helped the winners.

Many of the candidates who won had more endorsements from incumbent lawmakers and elected leaders than their opponents. Denver attorney Sean Camacho, for instance, was endorsed by a who’s who of Democrats, including Gov. Jared Polis, House Speaker Julie McCluskie and Senate President Steve Fenberg, while his opponent, Epps, didn’t list any such support on her website.

Amabile and Rep. Lindsey Daugherty beat their rivals in Senate District 18 and 19, respectively, after receiving backing from a broad spectrum of Democrats.

Tim Hernández in House District 4 was one of the exceptions to that trend, but he was targeted by $445,000 in super PAC spending and had critical news coverage, including for refusing to condemn the Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct. 7.

Another takeaway is that the two vacancy-committee-appointed Democratic representatives who faced primary challenges – Hernández and Marvin – lost to the candidates they beat in their vacancy elections.

There’s been a lot of focus on legislative vacancy committees in recent years and whether they truly reflect their districts. Hernández was elected to his seat last year by a 66-member Democratic vacancy committee. Marvin was elected to her seat this year by a 17-member Democratic vacancy committee.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.