Mike Johnston ad

Mike Johnston, a candidate for U.S. Senate, talks about incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner's donations in one of Johnston's initial campaign ads.

Let the games begin.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is more than a year away from having a Democratic opponent in his re-election bid, and Democrats, instead of vetting the best possible challenger, are unhooking their kitchen sinks to throw at the Republican from Colorado.

First up: Campaign money -- where he gets his, but not so much where they get theirs. Spoiler alert: Basically the same place.

In the most competitive Senate race in the country in 2020, Democrats would have you believe Gardner is bought and sold by corporate interests. 

A case for that can be made. Besides his own $2 million war chest, Gardner chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which raises much of its money from corporate political action committees to help elect GOP senators.

The website Open Secrets noted that 50 Democrats running for Congress vowed to stop taking corporate PAC money in 2018, yet relying on "individual" donors, many with direct corporate ties, or from trade associations, they raised more than Republicans by about $300 million last year.

The difference, I was told, is that Democrats want to fix corporate money allowed by the 2010 Supreme Court decision called Citizens United. Does Gardner? His campaign wouldn't say. But that's like asking a Republican why he thinks like a Republican.

Republicans like Citizens United, which holds that money is equal to speech and corporations have the same rights to free speech as people. Corporations tend to have a lot more money than people and tend to favor Republicans.

Of the nearly $17 million Gardner and outside groups on his behalf have raised since he entered the race for Congress in 2013, PAC money has been the lamp unto Gardner’s electoral feet. Oil and gas, health care, lobbyists, law firms, Big Pharma, agribusiness -- all the major players are there.

Nearly all Gardner's Democratic challengers have vowed not to take "corporate PAC money," but Mike Johnston and Andrew Romanoff have been the most vocal.

“You want to get corruption out of politics?” Johnston says in a video on Facebook, as he sits at a kitchen table somewhere in middle America where he does math with his kids, this time dividing stacks of money. “You've got to start by getting PACs out of politics."

He knows stacks and PACs. Last year when he was running for governor, Johnston’s super PAC got $2 million from former New York mayor and mega-rich gun-control advocate Michael Bloomberg, who has said courts should decide on #MeToo allegations, and he supports the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk policing. 

Johnston’s past supporters also have included executives from Facebook and LinkedIn, plus former hedge-fund manager John Arnold, who made his billions trading natural gas. Governing magazine called Arnold “The Most Hated Man in Pensionland” for his efforts to move public employees into private retirement plans. 

On March 21, Johnston got a $5,600 donation from Samuel Gary, founder and president of an oil company, Samuel Gary Jr. & Associates, as well as donations from lobbyists who represent such corporate titans as ExxonMobil and Uber.

I wanted to quiz Johnston about his corporate donors, but his campaign said he was busy. His spokesperson, Rachel Petri, did the honors, but she wouldn't address Johnston's donors, either.

"It's not surprising PACs like Koch Industries and Halliburton Company are excited about funding Cory Gardner’s campaign,” she said. “In Washington, Cory has voted with President Trump over 90 percent of the time, opposed commonsense gun safety proposals and supported a $1.5 trillion tax giveaway to corporations. Mike Johnston’s record speaks for itself. In the state Senate he helped pass landmark clean energy standards, opened the doors to college by championing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and took on the NRA twice, and won."

Similarly, in a search of Romanoff’s donors since 2013 (he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 2014), the occupation "CEO" turns up 189 times.

Democrat Alice Madden’s donor list when she was in the state legislature turns up plenty of PAC donors from 2001 to 2006, before PAC became a Democratic four-letter word.

Keep in mind they don't view all PACs the same way. Trade associations and labor unions, for example, fall under a different classification than corporate PAC definition set by the Federal Elections Commission, which sanctifies by a frog's whisker two crucial sources of campaign cash for Democrats.

That provided cover in April when the Intercept website dinged Colorado's new U.S. Rep. Jason Crow from Aurora. He, like the current batch of candidates, vowed not “to take a dime of corporate PAC money” on the campaign trail; about two weeks after taking office, Crow accepted $5,000 from the trade group American Hospital Association PAC on behalf of public and private hospital companies. 

I tried and failed to pin down several Democratic operatives who have been out beating up on Gardner's campaign finances to go on the record and explain how their candidate's money is cleaner, when it comes from the same pool of wealth and influence.

The reality is anyone who has a shot in big-time politics plays a hide-the-pea shell game with donations. Neither side is relying on bake sales or $5 checks from little old ladies.

In reality, dark money is only dark when it shines on someone else’s candidate.

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