December 4, 2006
THE COLOR PURPLE
How liberal millionaires are buying Colorado’s politics
JOHN J. MILLER
When Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave votes on abortion, she votes pro-life — always. The National Right to Life Committee has given the Colorado Republican a top rating during her two terms in the House, and in truth her pro-life record stretches back even further, to her days in the state legislature. “I’m 100 percent pro-life,” she says.
So it came as a bit of a surprise when a group calling itself Coloradans for Life launched an expensive ad war against Musgrave this fall. One radio spot even claimed that she had “turned her back on the unborn.” The charge was provocative; it was also utter nonsense. “This is a cynical political ploy to trick pro-life citizens into casting a vote against their conscience,” warned Colorado Right to Life president Brian Rohrbough in a statement.
Despite its name and rhetoric, Coloradans for Life sought to exploit the pro-life movement rather than advance it. Although several Republicans faced challenges this year from at least nominally pro-life Democrats, Musgrave did not: Her opponent, Angie Paccione, supports abortion rights. Yet Coloradans for Life targeted Musgrave and spent enormous sums against her. In late October, the Fort Collins Coloradoan estimated that the organization would devote at least $2.3 million to defeating Musgrave — more than Paccione’s entire campaign budget. “It’s just amazing to me,” says Musgrave. “Why can’t these people stand up and fight fair?”
On Election Day, Musgrave overcame the wave that drowned so many of her colleagues and cost the GOP its majority: She nipped Paccione by 3.5 points. Many of her fellow Colorado Republicans weren’t so lucky. For the second election in a row, Democrats made major gains in the state: They won the governorship, prevailed in a GOP-held congressional district, and picked up seats in the state legislature.
National trends certainly had something to do with it. At the heart of this accomplishment, however, lies a well-funded plot to transform Colorado from Republican red to Democratic blue. The creative use of extra-party organizations such as Coloradans for Life to shade the state purple is a strategy that the Left may decide to imitate elsewhere.
Just four years ago, Republicans were riding high in the Rockies: Gov. Bill Owens was reelected by a huge margin, both senators were Republican, and so were five of the seven members of Colorado’s House delegation. The GOP also controlled the state legislature.
Today, the situation is rather different. Not only is Colorado’s governor-elect Bill Ritter a Democrat, but so are one of its senators (Ken Salazar) and four of its seven incoming House members. Democrats also hold majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. “They’re on a roll,” says John Andrews, the former Republican head of the state senate.
There are plenty of explanations for this sea change. Demography is one of them: A growing Hispanic population leans Democratic, and a small wave of Californians has moved into Colorado and imported the west coast’s liberal politics.
Some will describe Colorado’s political reversal as the result of Western libertarians’ rejecting social conservatism. Yet that interpretation has its limits. This November, voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and rejected a referendum that would have created domestic partnerships for gays.
Many conservatives blame the GOP’s woes on its complacency. “Republicans are getting the comeuppance they deserve,” says Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute, a think tank based in Golden, Colo. When Republicans controlled the state government, they made progress in several areas — tax cuts, charter schools, public-school accountability — but they also presided over the weakening of an amendment to the state constitution that had checked the growth of government.
A large number of Republicans believe that their hard times ultimately come down to a single factor: money. “We haven’t seen anything like this before,” says Katy Atkinson, a longtime GOP consultant. “The money factor is absolutely enormous.” The problem began in 2002, when the voters approved a new campaign-finance law that gave unions a big edge in raising and distributing funds. It continued two years later, as wealthy liberals poured resources into “527” groups, unregulated campaign organizations named after a section of the tax code.
Only Florida and Ohio saw more 527 spending in 2004 than Colorado did, according to one estimate. The Rocky Mountain News calculated that Democrats raised $4 million for friendly 527s, compared with $2.9 million raised by Republicans, but GOP operatives believe the difference was much larger. “We think that they outspent us by three to one or four to one,” says Alan Philp of the Trailhead Group, a Republican 527 that was created to fight back. “It’s hard to know for sure because the law doesn’t require much transparency.” The only certainty is that Colorado’s political mechanics are totally different from just a few years ago.
Three millionaire liberals are working the state’s electoral levers. “They’re trying to buy the political structure of the state,” says Governor Owens. “Everywhere we look, we see their money and their resources.” The ringleader is Tim Gill, the founder of Quark, a software firm; over the last decade, he has donated tens of millions to gay and lesbian causes.
His political activism dates back to 1992, when Colorado voters amended the state constitution to restrict certain gay-rights laws. “Nothing can compare to the psychological trauma of realizing that more than half the people in your state believe that you don’t deserve equal rights,” he once told the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Gill’s allies are heiress Pat Stryker and dotcom entrepreneur Jared Polis. “If you were to put a gun to the head of most Democrats, they couldn’t tell you who their state chairman is,” says one Colorado insider. “But they all know about these millionaires — each is like a mini-George Soros for Colorado.”
Two years ago, Ray Martinez learned firsthand what their money can do. He was a former police sergeant and a popular three-term mayor of Fort Collins. When a state senator retired in his district, he threw his hat in the ring. “We thought he would win easily,” says Owens. The district is home to about one-third more registered Republicans than Democrats. But then Colorado’s liberal millionaires swooped in, bankrolling slash-and-burn ads about Martinez. Many of them aired in Denver’s pricey TV market — an extravagance previously unheard of in state-senate races. “You know how you hear about elections that are bought? That’s what happened to me — my opponent’s election was bought,” says Martinez. “My campaign cost about $350,000, and the other side spent as much as $1.7 million against me.”
One commercial accused Martinez of bilking taxpayers through his mayoral expense account. Another savaged his views on abortion, with images suggesting that he likes to peek into bedroom windows. “That was such character assassination,” he says. “I’m pro-life. I was raised in an orphanage, adopted, and only recently did I discover that my birth mother was a rape victim and that I’ve got brothers and sisters. And they’re trying to portray me as a perverted Peeping Tom.” At one point during the race, Martinez enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls. This soon vanished, and he lost. “Their lies worked,” he says.
This year, state representative Matt Knoedler, a Republican, came in for similar treatment when he challenged Democratic state senator Betty Boyd. Their race was billed as one of the most important in Colorado: “Control of the chamber probably hinges on the matchup,” wrote the Denver Post.
A 527 called Clear Peak Colorado — funded by six-figure donations from Gill and Stryker — came out swinging, in ads that accused Knoedler of weakness on immigration. “This is a complete lie,” complained Knoedler on his website. His supposed sin was to oppose a watered-down version of a bill to prevent illegal aliens from receiving certain public services. In fact, he backed a tougher version; he had also served on the staff of Congressman Tom Tancredo, a prominent supporter of immigration restriction. But the ad worked, and Knoedler lost the election by nearly 13 points.
The mini-Soroses of Colorado aren’t merely dabbling in elections — they’re building a permanent infrastructure. “We are finally realizing that how we win is by creating an environment of fear and respect,” boasted Gill adviser Ted Trimpa — described by one politico as “the Karl Rove of Colorado” — to the Bay Area Reporter, a gay newspaper in San Francisco, earlier this year.
They’ve established several websites, including ColoradoPols.com, that have started to shape political coverage in the state. “I can’t tell you how often reporters would call 36 hours after something appeared there,” says Owens. They’ve also founded Colorado Media Matters, an offshoot of David Brock’s national group of left-wing watchdogs. It currently employs about a dozen people. “That’s more media critics than there are in the rest of the Colorado media combined,” says David Kopel of the Independence Institute. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal group that tries to publicize GOP scandals both real and fake, has a Colorado field office as well. Gill would even like to influence the GOP: He hired former Owens staffer and conservative-movement veteran Sean Duffy to work on the domestic-partnership referendum, and convinced Patrick Guerriero to resign as head of the Log Cabin Republicans in order to run the Gill Action Fund.
Given their incredible success over the last two election cycles, Colorado’s liberals are no doubt already looking forward to 2008. GOP senator Wayne Allard may retire. Even if he doesn’t, the battle for his seat will be one of the hardest-fought Senate contests in the country. Denver is a leading candidate to host the Democratic convention that year, and there will be a major push to deliver Colorado’s electoral votes to the party’s nominee.
Potentially more important is Gill’s determination to export the Colorado model. “If I can make a difference in Colorado, you can make a difference in your home state,” he said earlier this year in Miami, at a meeting of financial heavyweights in the gay-rights movement, according to the Rocky Mountain News. To liberals, that may sound like a hope. Conservatives should hear it as a threat.