Editor's note: Now through Wednesday, Colorado Politics presents eight perspectives on campaign finance reform.
Virtually all Coloradans would agree that campaign finance reform is needed.
As a conservative libertarian, my preference would be the removal of contribution limits paired with immediate reporting of any donation larger than $500. In contrast, those on the left may suggest using our tax dollars to publicly fund elections.
Neither position is realistically able to garner the votes needed to become law in Colorado, and neither would be constitutional if limits were simultaneously placed on donations made by outside groups to affect the outcome of elections.
Perhaps, though, we could at least agree to some modest and sensible reform of the current campaign finance regime?
Colorado has some of the lowest contribution limits in the nation, set at $1,150 for statewide races and $400 for state legislative races. These unusually low donation limits were locked into the Colorado Constitution in 2002 by the passage of Amendment 27.
However, the amendment left a glaring loophole in our campaign finance laws: there is absolutely no limit placed on the amount that an incredibly wealthy person can donate or loan to their own campaign.
The amount of money that rich and uber-rich candidates gave to their respective campaigns during this most recent cycle was shocking. In the previous gubernatorial race, a cool half million would likely give you more than any opponents had at their disposal in the primary portion of the election. By contrast, in 2018 half a million wouldn’t have held a candle to the $5 million one Republican candidate spent on his race; that’s a ten-fold increase in one cycle!
But wait, there’s more: Jared Polis spent what Colorado Public Radio called an “unprecedented” amount of $11 million on the primary. He went on to spend more than $23 million on the race to become governor of Colorado. Needless to say, he won.
Compare $23 million to the amount spent by the previous champion fundraiser, Gov. John Hickenlooper, who raised just over $6 million for his re-election campaign. I have run for governor myself and have been involved in several statewide races; I do not think there is any way a candidate raising $4-$6 million can compete with a candidate who is capable of spending six times as much.
There is clearly a loophole that allows rich candidates to buy an election for themselves, and it has resulted in an out-of-control escalation in the cost of running a competing campaign.
Does that mean that a normal Coloradan just cannot run for office against a bazillionaire? I certainly hope not.
In 1976 the Supreme Court ruled that any limit on what an individual can spend on their own campaign is unconstitutional, so any reform measure must allow the competition to raise enough to contend with the wealthiest candidates.
Former state Rep. B.J. Nikkel and I offered a modest and fair campaign finance reform measure on last fall’s ballot that truly merits reconsideration.
Our idea to close this “millionaire loophole” was to increase Colorado’s ultra-low contribution limit for any race in which a candidate donated or loaned a million dollars or more to their campaign. In those instances, we suggested raising the statewide campaign donation limit from $1,150 to $5,750 for every candidate in that race.
That amount may seem high, but the national average of donation limits for gubernatorial races is $5,620. It is also close to the amount that a candidate running for federal office can accept.
While $5,750 is more than I have personally ever given to a campaign other than my own, it is a “normal” limit, and many good candidates working under similar parameters have been capable of raising $15 million or more. This would be a sensible avenue to level the playing field for regular Coloradans running against wealthy candidates.
$5 million just cannot compete with $20 million in a state-wide race. $15 million could, however, given the effect of diminishing marginal returns. In a state like Colorado, it may even be possible for $15 million to compete with $30 million. More importantly, regular candidates would at least stand a chance, which is significantly better than allowing those with enough wealth to “buy” the seat. After all, the hallmark of our republic is that we hold elections, not auctions.
Greg Brophy, a Republican former state senator and former state representative from Wray, was co-proponent of the citizen-initiated Amendment 75 on the Nov. 6, 2018, statewide ballot.