Columnists, Elections, Featured, Jon Caldara, Politics, Uncategorized

Caldara: Campaign finance limits and Phil Weiser’s ‘dark money’ windfall

We all decorate our workspaces with items that bring a smile to our face. On my office wall hangs an old election poster from 2002. It reads in bold lettering, “Yes on Amendment 27! Get big money out of politics!”

Amendment 27 limited campaign contributions and it won in a landslide. And now, some 17 years later, it’s working like a charm and big money is out of politics!

You can see why that poster always cracks me up.

What Colorado’s stingy contribution limits have really done is stolen most candidates’ ability to run their own campaign. Instead, Amendment 27 delivered the job of running campaigns to self-appointed “friends” who are barred from even communicating with the candidate. Like so many well-intended regulations, it’s having the opposite effect. It increased big money in politics.

Take our last governor’s race. Walker Stapleton and Jared Polis could only except $1,250 in a campaign contributions from a “natural person” thanks to Amendment 27. While Jared Polis, one of the wealthiest men serving in the U.S. Congress at the time, could self-fund his run for governor as much as he wished (and boy did he wish), Stapleton couldn’t.

To match every million dollars Polis gave his own campaign, Stapleton would have had to effectively beg 800 individuals to max out their gifts to him. Polis self-funded at least $23 million without having to take the time, energy and distraction from campaigning to ask a single person for help. Stapleton would have had to get 18,400 donors to max out their contributions to be on funding par with Polis.

Someone else could run their own campaign on Stapleton’s behalf and self-fund it as much as they like through mechanisms like an Independent Expenditure Committee. But they are prohibited from coordinating with the candidate. So, while Polis was able to run his own campaign, which he did masterfully, Stapleton couldn’t stop his friends when they went completely off-target campaigning on his behalf.

Ever wonder why you see so many really stupid advertisements for a candidate. Well, just know they’re mostly not from the candidate. They often do more harm than good, being wrong in fact, tone or message since they can’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign. But they can dump in millions despite Amendment 27 which, again, got big money out of politics.

Campaign contribution limits helped give birth to “dark money,” the pejorative term given to that campaign money that isn’t directly given to a candidate. Because an individual can only directly give a candidate a small amount ($400 to a state House candidate for instance) this is how campaigns now get financed.

Often who provides that money isn’t publicly disclosed. The fear of vengeful politicians once they get into a powerful position, like our president, is just one reason people want to be anonymous. 

It’s popular for a candidate to rail against dark money while at the same time loving the benefit of it because, well, politicians, that’s why. Take our affable Attorney General Phil Weiser.

During his campaign, Weiser wrote, “As a candidate, I will call on any group spending money on my behalf to disclose their donors, so Colorado voters know who is seeking to influence them.” Adding, “I am proud to run a transparent and people-powered campaign …Together, we will overcome the corrosive influence of dark money … .”

He even scolded the Republican Attorney Generals Association for their dark money in the race. “Dark money — from undisclosed, out-of-state companies — is a threat to our democracy. And it’s coming to Colorado this fall from the Republican AG Association.”

Interesting then that Weiser didn’t call out the out-of-state dark money that helped him win his race. #GlassHouseMeetRock

As reported by Sherrie Peif on the news site (disclosure, it’s associated with Independence Institute, which I run), the progressive Sixteen Thirty Fund funneled $600,000 in dark money into the effort to elect Weiser. The donation was to the Justice Colorado Independent Expenditure Committee which had the sole purpose of electing Weiser to the AG’s office.

I don’t recall Weiser condemning his dark money windfall, no less demanding they reveal their donors. And Phil, doing so after the fact doesn’t count.

In fact, the Sixteen Thirty Fund’s dark money spilled nearly $11 million into the progressive side of Colorado elections, everything from campaigning for Jared Polis to urging lawmakers to end payday loans.

The best way to discourage the dark money politicos like Weiser, who claim they abhor it but really rely upon it, is to repeal the oppressive campaign limits that forced big money into politics.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.


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