COVER STORY YEAR IN REVIEW polis assembly (copy)

Jared Polis speaks to the crowd at the 2018 Colorado Democratic State Assembly on April 14, 2018, in Broomfield, during his campaign for governor.

Dick Wadhams

Dick Wadhams

Editor's note: Now through Wednesday, Colorado Politics presents eight perspectives on campaign finance reform.


Which conservative, libertarian or partisan Republican organization made this simple but powerful proposal to fundamentally reform state and federal campaign finance laws:

“Enact legislation that removes limits on political contributions to candidates and political parties.”

Was it the Republican National Committee? Or the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation? Or perhaps Colorado’s libertarian Independence Institute? Or maybe even that great repository of corporate advocacy, the United States Chamber of Commerce?

None of the above.

While it did not get nearly the attention it deserved from the state and national news media in November 2013, the University of Denver (certainly no bastion of conservative or libertarian thought), through its Strategic Issues Program, released a report entitled “Money, Elections and Citizens United: Campaign Finance Reform for Colorado.”

The DU report recommended first and foremost that Colorado should “enact legislation that removes limits on political contributions to candidates and political parties” along with several other strong proposals for enhanced disclosure of contributions.

Sitting on this bipartisan panel were very prominent Democratic leaders such as former Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, respected campaign finance lawyer Mark Grueskin, and the legendary former state Sen. Polly Baca.

Romanoff, Grueskin, Baca and DU were dead right. Removing limits on contributions to candidates and political parties is the only fundamental reform that will level the playing field that currently benefits wealthy candidates who can spend unlimited sums and independent expenditure committees that have no limits on their contributions.

Our current campaign finance laws imposing limits on contributions to state and federal candidates and political parties are a joke. While candidates and political parties are left to scrounge for ridiculously low contributions, outside “independent expenditure” groups are raising unlimited amounts of money.

To add insult to injury, candidates such as newly elected Gov. Jared Polis are able to spend as much of their vast personal fortunes on their campaigns as they wanted — anywhere from $20 million to $30 million in the case of Polis — while their less well-heeled opponents laboriously raise money in limited sums from thousands of individual contributors.

But this is not a partisan issue. There are plenty of examples of very wealthy Republicans swamping their Democratic opponents in personal funds. Polis just happens to be the latest, most relevant example here in Colorado of this unfair disparity.

Campaign finance reform do-gooders always seem to default to the naïve notion that limiting contributions to candidates and political parties will “get money out of politics” when, in fact, it results in even more money flooding the system but in unaccountable ways with candidates having no role in how that money is being spent.

Candidates and political parties are forbidden — under the threat of criminal prosecution! — from any coordination with these independent expenditure committees so they ultimately have no control over how these unlimited funds are being spent.

Since contribution limits to candidates and political parties are so low, many contributors end up giving substantially more to independent expenditure committees to help their favored candidates. Removing the limits would almost inevitably result in much of that money flowing back to candidates and political parties and away from these shadowy committees.

Removing the limits while also requiring immediate and full public disclosure will allow voters to make their own decisions on how financial contributions influence candidates.

When the Joe Jones for Governor campaign or the Colorado Democratic Party sends out mail or airs media ads, voters instinctively know who is financing the voter contact. But when an independent expenditure committee with some benign name like Citizens for Puppies and Kittens engages in the same contact, voters have no idea who is behind that committee or who is financing it.

Level the playing field by removing the limits. Trust the public’s ability to know when a candidate or elected official is being bought off or unduly influenced by campaign contributions.

Remove the limits on political contributions to candidates and political parties.

Dick Wadhams is a Republican political consultant and former Colorado Republican Party state chairman who managed campaigns for U.S. Sens. Hank Brown and Wayne Allard and Gov. Bill Owens.

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