The 2018 “soft money” campaign for the Colorado House of Representatives on the Republican side was managed almost exclusively by Rearden Strategic, a company run by political consultant Joseph Neville.
It used one central committee for raising so-called “caucus funds” from donors and then funneled it to various independent expenditure committees (IECs) also controlled by Neville, the brother of House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, who was responsible for strategy for spending the money.
There were hundreds of IECs active in Colorado’s 2018 election. By law, IECs cannot coordinate with candidates, but they can accept and spend unlimited money to persuade voters to vote for or against candidates. In some cases, candidates backed by IECs say they don’t like the messages used to support them.
Values First Colorado was the caucus fund for Republicans hoping to be elected to the Colorado House. It operated out of the same office as Rearden Strategic.
For the 2018 campaign it raised $1.214 million, with top donors coming from the oil and gas industry, according to filings with the Secretary of State’s Office:
- Extraction Oil & Gas, $60,000
- PDC Energy, $35,000
- Exxon, $20,000
- Anadarko Petroleum, $17,500
The independent expenditure committee also got $27,500 from the tobacco company Altria (formerly Phillip Morris), another $45,500 from Pharma Colorado, and $51,750 from Anheuser Busch.
Out of the $1.214 million raised by Values First, $249,290 went to pay consultants. Rearden got $86,300; Aaron Yates, a Rearden employee, got $17,000.
Values First Colorado routed additional money to at least two other IECs run by Joe Neville: Coloradans for Secure Borders and the Colorado Liberty PAC.
Out of the total of $416,150 raised by the Colorado Liberty PAC, $393,000 came from Values First Colorado. The committee spent $264,580, leaving an ending balance of $152,009 after the final reports for the 2018 election cycle were filed on Dec. 6.
Rearden Strategic and its employees, Joe Neville and Yates, got $11,416 for consultant services from the Liberty PAC and another $239,886 to do advertising on behalf of a dozen Republican House candidates. Of those dozen candidates, 11 lost their races.
Among the Neville allies backed by the Liberty PAC was Republican Grady Nouis, who lost to incumbent Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp of Arvada in House District 29 by 21 points.
That's a race that some of the many Republican insiders who spoke to Colorado Politics point to as one where the caucus should have saved its money, given that Kraft-Tharp has a solid hold on the district.
But how much the Liberty PAC spent on the House District 29 race is unknown, because campaign finance reports filed by the committee aggregated the money spent for on as much as a dozen candidates.
Some Republicans who spoke with Colorado Politics said they view the aggregation as a way to hide just how much gets spent on any one candidate: It allows lots of money to be spent on behalf of one candidate and not so much on another.
For example, the Colorado Liberty PAC spent $65,737 on Oct. 2 for direct mail pieces opposing 10 Democrats running for the House. Included in that group: Democrat Lisa Cutter (in House District 25) and Kraft-Tharp, who were running against Neville allies Steve Szutenbach and Nouis respectively.
Citizens for Secure Borders, another Joe Neville-run IEC, raised $274,200, all of it from Values First Colorado, and spent $144,740 on advertising. That left an ending balance of $129,460 after the last campaign finance reports were filed on Dec. 6.
Rearden Strategic got $122,374 for advertising on behalf of virtually the same candidates backed by the Colorado Liberty PAC.
Another IEC, Colorado Moms Who Care, raised $106,700, all of it from Values First, and spent $104,681. Due to some funds left over from the 2016 election cycle, the ending balance was $6,454. All of the advertising purchased by Colorado Moms Who Care was routed through Rearden Strategic.
One Republican insider told Colorado Politics he didn’t mind if Joe Neville and his companies make money off their political activities. But, he said, the lack of results in terms of election wins for the GOP is another matter.
Joe Neville, in a lengthy response to Colorado Politics for this story, insisted that he and his staff were frugal with caucus funds.
“Almost all of the money went to vendors to run the program,” he said. “Any markup on cost was [trivial], at-cost and obviously well below the industry standard. Our overhead was minimal, and our employees worked for non-living wages for metro Denver because they were committed to taking back the House. Our sole focused goal was to maximize the return on our money and spend the money to win back the majority in the House.”
‘A lot of late money’
Another concern among Republicans who talked with Colorado Politics: what appears to be a large amount of unspent money left over after the election.
“Spend it to the end”: It's an expression that floats around soft money groups. What it means is that you don't leave money in the bank; you spend it on behalf of your candidates (or against their opponents) down to the last penny.
But that wasn't the case for the Nevilles and the committees they ran in 2018, based on campaign finance filings.
After raising $1.214 million, the Values First Colorado caucus-fund committee and its related IECs left ending balances of $305,961, just over a quarter of what the GOP House caucus raised for the 2018 election.
Contrast that to the soft money group that backed House Democrats, Our Colorado Values. The committee raised a total of $3.335 million, with $13,303 left in the bank. That’s four-tenths of one percent.
Joe Neville told Colorado Politics that the high ending balance was due to “a lot of late money [coming] in that we didn’t budget for, and it’s really hard to spend late money, especially with most airtime being already committed, and the overloaded bandwidth of mail vendors not being able to turn around mail pieces in time.”
That’s contradicted by political consultants who spoke to Colorado Politics, including one who said that kind of money could be spent within 24 hours on walking a district or making phone calls.
Joe Neville also cited difficulties in lining up paid precinct workers, for which about $120,000 had been budgeted, and that it was “good business practices in today’s political climate” to set aside money for legal costs -- “win or lose, we expected to get sued.” He didn’t say what he would be sued for.
Still, some Republicans believe that even a modest amount of additional spending in some districts could have helped turn the tide for GOP candidates.
Finance filings with the state showed Values First Colorado took in $80,890 in contributions in the two weeks prior to the election. By contrast, the Democrats’ committee -- Our Colorado Values -- took in $134,600 in that same time period.
And the Democrats’ committee had just over $13,000 as an ending balance after Election Day, compared to the more than $305,000 held by the GOP’s Values First Colorado after Election Day.