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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

New Denver campaign finance system, same result. Outside money still rules.

The massive Denver mayoral ballot has been whittled down to two, and it should not be a surprise who the top two were: the candidates with the most money behind them.

But that doesn’t mean the Fair Elections Fund — Denver’s matching contribution system — did not work. Rather, it seemed swamped by outside money that flooded into the race.

Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough advanced out of crowded field of 17 (16 if you don’t count Kwame Spearman, who dropped out before the election, but still appeared on the ballot). Not coincidentally, the same two led the fundraising race.

Brough brought in more than $1.4 million (she maxed out the $750,000 from the FEF and raised another $677,410 from direct contributions). Johnston, who entered several months after Brough, hauled in almost $1.3 million ($613,539 in FEF matching and $673,289 in direct support).

Those numbers outdistanced the rest of the pack, but not by an outlandish amount. Leslie Herod (whose campaign I worked for) raised $930,000. Andy Rougeot, who did not receive FEF funds but loaned himself $850,000, wasn’t far behind. Chris Hansen had more than $500,000 to use.

But it was an influx of outside money that made the real difference.

Propped up by large business owners, the Johnston supporting group Advancing Denver spent nearly $2.5 million. That is nearly twice what his own campaign raised, much less spent. A Better Denver, which went toward helping Brough, spent almost $1 million helping her secure second place.

The next closest were independent expenditures on behalf of Debbie Ortega ($274,207) and Herod ($167,600). No other mayoral candidate had outside help topping $100,000.

That money proved decisive. It bought the television ads that helped Johnston and Brough separate themselves from a crowded field. In the end, it was more than any other candidate could compete with. It is also an unfortunate consequence of some changes made to the Denver campaign finance regime.

While the FEF match allowed candidates like Ean Tafoya and Terrance Roberts and Jim Walsh to raise enough to mount credible campaigns, it came at the cost of reducing the direct contribution amount limits. Before this year, candidates for mayor could take contributions of up to $3,000 from individuals. This year, candidates accepting FEF matching were limited to $500. Those who chose to forgo FEF were able to take in only $1,000.

To put that in perspective, state representatives (who represent districts of roughly 88,800 people) can raise $425 per election cycle. Denver mayoral FEF candidates, running in the costliest media market in the state, could take in only $75 more per person while representing more than 700,000 people. Even accounting for the matching funds — and not every contribution is matched — a $500 matched contribution would only be $950 to the candidate.

It simply is not enough to pay for field staff, mailers, television and digital ads to reach that many people.

But the outside groups, who can take unlimited amounts, provided a vehicle to do just that. While candidates are forbidden from coordinating with those groups, both sophisticated campaigns and outside consultants understand there are plenty of loopholes. That is why so many candidate websites have large galleries of high-definition pictures and “red-box” messages. It is all public and, consequently, fair game.

I understand the desire to “get money out of politics” that led to those minuscule contribution amount limitations, but the outsized influence it created for outside groups should not have been a surprise. It is the natural consequence.

Years ago, I traveled the state debating the late, great Ken Gordon on this very point. I said those limits not only were ineffective, but also ended up removing control of a campaign from candidates and ceding it to outside groups. It happened every time limits were created.

And it happened again this year.

Furthermore, it is impossible to make any further change. For 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that people can spend whatever they want on political messages. That is not likely to change.

The better option? Increase the limits, keep the matching funds, and put an emphasis on transparency and disclosure. That might help make a real change. For now, though, the story remains the same.

Candidates with overwhelming monetary advantages are in the best position to win.

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