Election 2018LegislatureNews

Independent slate of legislative candidates outraises Democrats, Republicans combined

Author: Ernest Luning - May 11, 2018 - Updated: May 16, 2018


The unaffiliated candidates for Colorado’s legislature endorsed by Unite Colorado and running under the national organization’s banner collected more in campaign contributions than their Republican and Democratic opponents combined during the most recent fundraising period — in most cases by wide margins.

Between Jan. 1 and May 2, the five independent House and Senate candidates raised $129,516, compared to $46,593 raised by the 11 major-party candidates running in the same five districts, according to campaign finance reports filed this week.

“These totals show our movement has built incredible momentum, and our candidates will have the resources necessary to run competitive campaigns,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite Colorado — formerly known as the Centrist Project — in a statement to Colorado Politics.

Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite Colorado (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

“The partisan political establishment has repeatedly tried to dismiss independent candidates, but (Monday’s) reports leave no doubt – much-needed new competition has officially arrived in Colorado politics, and voters will have a viable alternative to both parties this fall.”

It was the first fundraising report filed by the unaffiliated candidates, four of whom entered the race in January with the fifth launching her campaign in March.

Troiano’s outfit set up shop in Colorado to much fanfare last year and announced it plans to spend $1 million to see if voters who say they’re willing to back credible, independent candidates will elect any to the General Assembly in November, for the first time in state history.

The group is also backing candidates for governor and federal office in other states.
It is focusing on legislative efforts in Colorado to test a theory that a small number of unaligned lawmakers can bridge the partisan divide at the state Capitol.

In Douglas County’s Senate District 30, independent challenger Steve Peterson, a management consultant, raised $31,228 — nearly four times what Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic nominee Julia Forbes Varnell-Sarjeant together raised during the reporting period.

Holbert, who has brought in more than $67,000 during the four years since he was elected to the seat, raised $6,290 since the beginning of the year, while Varnell-Sarjeant raised $2,685.

Both Holbert and Peterson reported having around $23,000 cash on hand at the end of the period.

“My opponent, who oversees fundraising for a dark money Republican 527, now has a choice to make: Will he continue helping raise money for other Republicans in tough elections, or bail himself out and fill his own campaign coffers?” Peterson said in a statement.

The Unite Colorado slate’s fundraising feat comes with some context — sitting legislators were in session until Wednesday for 120 days, almost exactly coinciding with the reporting period. Additionally, when the General Assembly is in session, legislative candidates can’t accept donations from lobbyists or groups that lobby lawmakers.

Andrew Short, Unite Colorado’s political director and a former executive director of the state Democrats’ campaign organization devoted to electing state senators, scoffed at suggestions the independents endorsed by his group had an advantage over the major-party candidates.

“They’ve all got full-time jobs, too,” he said. “And if the Democrats and Republicans want to go fill up with donations from special interests once the session is over, we’ll be sure to point out that our candidates aren’t taking any special-interest PAC money.”

The Unite Colorado-backed candidate in Broomfield-based House District 33, Jay Geyer, lapped the two major party candidates by an even greater margin than Holbert’s challenger. The veteran and University of Colorado ethics instructor pulled in more than six times what state Rep. Matt Gray, the Democratic incumbent, and Republican Eric Rutherford raised.

Geyer reported raising $30,314 compared to $4,235 raised by Gray and $100 raised by Rutherford. (Libertarian Kim Tavendale reported raising $35 during the reporting period.)

With about $25,400 cash on hand, Geyer closed the period with more in the bank than Gray, who had about $18,000.

“The reason my opponent hasn’t kept up with fundraising this quarter is because he can’t accept money from big special interests during the legislative session,” Geyer said in a statement to Colorado Politics. “I expect that as soon as he’s legally allowed, he will begin filling his campaign’s bank account with money from these groups, often from both sides of the same issue, as he has in the past.”

A sixth candidate running in House District 59 in southwest Colorado hasn’t won a formal endorsement from the group but received the maximum $4,850 contribution from its small-donor committee and has gotten help from its campaign operation.

Including that donation, Paul Jones, a retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife game warden running since early April, reported raising $7,105 for the period, topping the $6,674 taken in by Democratic incumbent state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango. There isn’t a Republican in the race.

Troiano said the organization had a hand in recruiting Jones and has been observing his campaign, in addition to lending a hand, but hasn’t decided whether to bring him under its banner with an endorsement and the all-out backing that would entail.

The five candidates who have been endorsed by Unite Colorado also each received $4,850 from the group’s small donor committee.

In the other races, independent candidate Thornton City Councilman Eric Montoya raised $25,030 for the open House District 31 seat in Adams County. That’s compared to $6,659 raised by Democrat Yadira Caraveo and the $2,580 raised by Republican Enrico Figueroa. (A Libertarian has launched a campaign in the district but didn’t report raising any money for the period.)

Maile Foster, the independent running for El Paso County’s open House District 18, posted $26,366 in contributions, ahead of the combined total raised by Republican nominee Jillian Likness, who took in $6,868, and the two Democrats running in the primary — Marc Alan Snyder, with $8,870, and Terry Martinez, with $5,787.

And Thea Chase, the Palisade town trustee who kicked off her independent bid in March for Mesa County’s open House District 54 seat, raised $16,452, beating out Republican Matt Soper’s $5,259 and Democrat Erin Marie Shipp’s reported lack of any fundraising during the period.

Troiano noted that United Colorado is still recruiting unaffiliated candidates, with special attention on districts like McLachlan’s where a Republican hasn’t wound up on the ballot. (Democrats are fielding candidates in every House and Senate seat that’s up for election in November.)

“We’re trying to introduce new competition into the political system and challenge the political duopoly that has insulated itself from competition,” he told Colorado Politics in an interview. “We’re here to shake up a system that’s badly broken.”

Unaffiliated legislative candidates can begin circulating nominating petitions on May 17, and they’re due to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office by July 12.

While major-party candidates for the House and Senate have to collect 1,000 verified signatures to get on the ballot, unaffiliated candidates have a lower threshold. Unaffiliated House hopefuls need 400 signatures, and aspiring independent senators need 600. In both cases, they can turn in 2 percent of the total number of votes cast for the office in that district in the last general election if it’s lower than the set numbers.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.