Newly elected congressman-to-be Joe Neguse was plucked by Speaker-presumptive Nancy Pelosi last weekend to deliver his party’s response to the president’s weekly radio address – a high honor, and indicative of the esteem in which the national Democrats hold what their state-level counterparts accomplished in Colorado last November. It is not surprising, then, that among the de-rigeur anti-Trump and shutdown talk there was tribute given to HR-1 which is to include, among other things, stricter campaign finance rules.
Within the flood of forensic analysis offered in the aftermath of Nov. 6, little attention was devoted to the role that money played in the outcome. The most incandescent figure is $23.4 million, which is how much of the $23.9 million in total donations to Governor-Elect Polis’ campaign were donated by Polis himself.
Now that is neither unethical nor even really all that remarkable; there is, after all, no law (nor should there be) forbidding one from spending one’s own resources to whatever extent they wish in pursuit of their own electoral ambitions. And, to be sure, Rick Scott did the same thing in Florida for his Senate run. Still, $23 million is an enormous sum for the Centennial State, and there are some interesting and telling differences between Colorado and Florida in terms of campaign finance regulations.
Most importantly, Colorado has far stricter limits on campaign contributions. Allowable donations to statewide campaigns, including governor, are capped at $1,150, less than half the $3,000 limit in Florida. For state House and Senate campaigns, the caps are a paltry $400, again 40 percent of Florida’s. Colorado also imposes caps on what may be donated to PAC’s and political parties, sums which are unlimited in Florida.
This was of great advantage to Mr. Polis, insomuch as a) Walker Stapleton was severely limited in how much hard money he could raise against Polis’ accumulated wealth, and b) Mr. Polis was relieved of having to clamor for much in the way of individual and PAC donations. This freed up a considerable amount of Democratic money that would have otherwise flowed into the gubernatorial campaign coffer, making it instead available for distribution down ballot.
To be clear, this was certainly not the only, nor even the biggest, factor contributing to the Democratic sweep of Colorado last fall, but it is hard to deny that that kind of money – it’s impossible to say how much, but it is fair to assume a few million – goes a long way divided among three or four competitive Senate seats, the remaining statewide contests, and a handful of House, county commissioner and sheriff races, especially in a state with Colorado’s campaign finance schema.
Campaign finance laws, their inherent constitutional difficulties aside, were ostensibly meant to correct the problem, perceived by many, that political spending is getting out of hand. The common refrain is that such reforms are necessary to “get money out of politics.”
Alas, they do no such thing. As Mitch McConnell said during the McCain-Feingold debates, you can institute whatever finance reform you wish, it will not reduce by one penny the amount of spending in politics. If someone wants to financially back a particular candidate, a way will be found, which, incidentally, is why such laws have bolstered the role of “dark money” so exponentially. The regulations do nothing but adjust the manner in which people spend politically, not the amount. And they adjust it in a manner which buttresses the odds for incumbents, or the independently wealthy.
The free-market, as usual, offers a solution: eliminate all donation caps in exchange for full and immediate disclosure, a solution which has the added benefit of not interfering with the First Amendment’s protections guaranteeing free speech. Unfortunately, the current system offers too many temptations for the savvy strategist to give up; and besides, Colorado has provided a model for how to use it advantageously. An appealing baby step in the right direction was offered as a ballot measure in the state last election, and indeed one of the tragedies of November was the failure of Amendment 75, which would have tilted the electoral scales a little closer to even by raising a candidate’s campaign donation caps if his or her opponent chooses to donate $1 million or more of their own money to their own campaign.
Amendment 75 failed to gain much traction last year, but it is a concept that deserves a closer look. It represents precisely the direction in which campaign finance reform ought to proceed, without which we are left with the uneasy suspicion that our great democratic experiment is susceptible to subordination by the highest bidder.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.