Deep pockets fuel primary election fight for Colorado Democratic Party’s future

LEFT: State Rep. Mike Weissman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for an Aurora state senate seat, left, talks with Casey Henderson while canvassing in Aurora on Thursday, June 20, 2024. RIGHT: Idris Keith, Democratic candidate for the Colorado Senate, right, hands a flyer to Jason Fulton over Fulton’s dog Louis while canvassing in Aurora on Thursday, June 20, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

A dizzying array of outside groups have unloaded more than $3.7 million on several Democratic primary races in and around metro Denver, as labor groups, corporations and more opaque spenders jockey to steer the ideological direction of the Democratic Party in newly blue Colorado.

Much of the spending has been concentrated on state House and Senate races, all of which are safe Democratic seats whose ultimate winner will almost certainly be determined by Tuesday’s primary vote. The contests — for seats in Aurora, Denver, Lakewood, Fort Collins, Boulder and Thornton — likely won’t affect the party’s majorities in the legislature but could broadly shape the type of Democratic Party that controls the state Capitol.

It underscores the state’s new, blue streak, as deep-pocketed interest groups — including those that, by design, mask their donors — battle for influence. In addition to warring factions within education and labor organizations, it’s also introduced business groups that traditionally play more in Republican races into Democratic politics.

“Because we’ve been successful in not only winning large majorities but also because the Republican Party has so completely collapsed into itself ideologically and structurally, people see Democratic races as a place to invest, to have an impact,” said Shad Murib, the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party.

The outside spending also reflects the growing, but now-familiar, struggle over the party’s ideological center. An active and growing left, represented most prominently in the state House, has pushed for more economic and structural change and has been willing to criticize more moderate peers in the process. Two prominent members of that flank, Denver Reps. Tim Hernández and Elisabeth Epps, face primary challenges.

Meanwhile, the more established, “mainstream” core of the party is being bolstered by groups seeking less foundational changes in how government works, with people involved in the fight frequently invoking descriptions like “pragmatic” and “practical” in describing their preferred candidates. Several officials and candidates said their efforts were a direct push against leftist activists like the Democratic Socialists of America.

That side of the spending received an additional boost late last week, when a new group backed by wealthy Denverite Kent Thiry dropped more than $1 million in support of several more moderate candidates in 13 statehouse primaries. Eight of those 13 races are Democratic, and most have already received significant outside spending.

Colorado turning blue “meant different things to different people,” said Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat and one of the more left-wing state legislators. “For some people that meant mostly maintaining the economic status quo in our state, but being very strongly pro-gay marriage, being for gun control. And then for other people, it meant being very strongly pro-gay marriage, pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-gun control.

“But also it meant,” he continued, “reforming the economic system so that we actually have a party that is in our state representing the interests of the working class. And this is a tension that’s happening in the Democratic Party.”

A tangled web

Even without the outside spending, the candidates in the cluster of Democratic primaries have all raised substantial amounts for local races. Rebekah Stewart, who’s running for a state House seat in Lakewood, has hauled in more than $136,000. Hernández, defending his northwest Denver seat, has raised $116,000. Rep. Judy Amabile, who’s looking to switch from the House to the Senate, amassed more than $200,000 in donations for her Boulder primary.

But the bulk of the spending — and the bulk of the opaque dollars — has come from the outside.

The most prominent group supporting the more left-wing progressive candidates, Colorado Labor Action, is backed largely by the AFL-CIO and the Colorado Education Association.

The group has spent more than half a million dollars on five candidates: Hernández, who was appointed to his seat in the fall and is now seeking to win it outright; Rep. Mike Weissman, who’s running for a state senate seat in Aurora; Rep. Julia Marvin, another appointee who is defending a primary challenge in Thornton; Bryan Lindstrom, a teacher running for the seat Weissman is set to vacate; and Yara Zokaie, an attorney running for an open House seat in Fort Collins.

That contingent is largely seen as among the more progressive end of the Democratic Party. Lindstrom and Hernández, both teachers, are backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Weissman has pursued stronger consumer protections during his time in the Capitol, and he’s the longtime chair of the House’s Judiciary Committee, which has pushed for criminal justice reform.

“These elections will determine what kind of Democratic Party we will see in Colorado,” SEIU Local 105 chief of staff Andy Jacob said in a statement about labor’s involvement in the race. “We cannot afford to allow corporations and a small handful of wealthy donors to buy our elections and ignore the concerns of working people.

A semi-truck affiliated with Teamsters Local 455 circles the block in front of the Colorado Capitol in support of pro-labor protesters in Denver on May 23, 2024. (Photo by Zachary Spindler-Krage/The Denver Post)

On the other side of the spending spectrum is a loosely connected web of nonprofits and political committees that generally support candidates its backers call “pragmatic progressives,” including those running against the five candidates backed by the AFL-CIO and the education association (plus Epps and others).

At the center of the web is One Main Street, a nonprofit organization that says it’s concerned by political infighting and instead backs “pragmatic” candidates.

“We’re dedicated to supporting candidates who embody true progressive values and have a proven track record of effectiveness,” said Andrew Short, One Main Street’s executive director. “… Whereas the candidates that we’re opposing have often shown themselves to be ineffective or are more focused on Twitter followers and ideological purity than practical solutions.”

Primary matchups

House District 4
Rep. Tim Hernández vs. Cecelia Espenoza*
House District 6
Rep. Elisabeth Epps vs. Sean Camacho
House District 30
Kyra deGruy Kennedy vs. Rebekah Stewart
House District 31
Rep. Julia Marvin vs. Jacque Phillips*
House District 36
Michael Carter vs. Bryan Lindstrom
House District 52
Ethnie Groves Treick vs. Yara Zokaie
Senate District 18
Rep. Judy Amabile vs. Jovita Schiffer
Senate District 19
Rep. Lindsey Daugherty vs. Obi Ezeadi
Senate District 28
Rep. Mike Weissman vs. Idris Keith

*Denotes a rematch from a previous vacancy committee selection

But the organization — which says it’s composed of trade unions and business groups — has taken an opaque path to backing its choices. It does not disclose most of its donors, and Short declined to name them. Public records provide some insight, like past donations from Xcel Energy and the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. But Short denied rumors about other supposed backers, like the oil and gas industry.

One Main Street’s political arm has received money from a handful of trade unions, like pipefitters, but the bulk of its cash is dark money, meaning its original sources aren’t public. The group essentially cuts checks from its nonprofit — $550,000 worth as of last week — and sends them to a political committee that bears its name.

From there, it spreads. One Main Street has spent relatively little to directly boost any candidate. Instead, it’s mostly funneled money to other groups. That includes $445,000 to A Whole Lot of People For Change, a spending committee that’s primarily backed eight Democratic candidates facing primary opponents to the tune of more than $800,000 in mailers, digital advertising, phone calls and door-knocking.

Another $145,000 of A Whole Lot of People’s money has come from a business coalition that received hefty support from an education group that supports charter schools, Education Reform Now Advocacy, plus more from hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry. That business coalition is also the funder of yet another group that’s backed more moderate candidates.

Education Reform Now Advocacy, which is New York-based, also donated $300,000 to two other Colorado political groups. Those groups, which share the same registered agent, then gave significant amounts to A Whole Lot of People For Change (one also then gave $80,000 to the business coalition group).

Because of the breadth of committees involved, it’s difficult to calculate the exact amount spent. Other money in the web — which is linked by common vendors, registered filing agents and donors — has also gone to back Sean Camacho against Epps and Cecelia Espenoza against Hernández.

The spending from Thiry’s group — Let Colorado Vote Action — included $150,000 to support Espenoza and $100,000 to back Camacho. In all, Let Colorado Vote Action doled out $1.08 million in one burst last week. The group, which was created days before it began cutting checks, will not have to disclose any donors until after Election Day.

One double-sided mailer attacked both Epps and Hernández. Two complaints have been filed with the Secretary of State’s Office because that mailer didn’t include information about who paid for it. The complaints were filed against Fighting For A Stronger Colorado, another opaque spending committee that’s backed Camacho and Espenoza. The registered agent for the group was briefly the registered agent for A Whole Lot of People For Change.

Reps. Tim Hernandez and Elisabeth Epps speak during a special session in the House at the Colorado Capitol on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Representatives for A Whole Lot of People for Change did not respond to a request for comment. Short, who at one point was also the registered agent for A Whole Lot of People for Change, said the group was independent of One Main Street.

He defended his group’s decision to move money through other organizations, rather than directly spending on behalf of candidates. It’s more efficient, he said, and “comes down to maximizing impact.” He said the goal was to elect people who embody “true progressive values.”

Murib, the state party chair, said he was particularly concerned about spending from outside groups who otherwise oppose Democratic policies. He declined to name any organization specifically, other than the Colorado Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s interesting to me that a lot of the organizations that oppose raising the minimum wage, oppose the public option — there are entities that oppose protection of public lands or moving toward renewable energy — who are suddenly playing in Democratic primaries,” he said. “And I don’t welcome that. We have a set of values that we believe in that a lot of these monied interests don’t. And that is the most cynical part of these dark money groups.”

More than $200,000 in outside money — mostly from A Whole Lot of People For Change — has been dumped into Stewart’s race against Kyra deGruy Kennedy in Lakewood, all in support of Stewart. The seat is currently held by deGruy Kennedy’s husband, Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy.

“This year especially gives us a very clear picture that this is no longer democracy,” Kyra deGruy Kennedy said. “If we’re accepting corporate money … to elect who’s running and who’s supporting and representing these districts, that’s not democracy.”

Stewart, meanwhile, said she was focused on winning her race. She — like all other candidates — legally has no control over outside spending. It does give her pause, said Stewart, who serves on Lakewood’s city council. But that’s politics now.

“We’re just living in a post-Citizens United reality,” she said, referring to the landmark Supreme Court case that opened up political spending. “That is incredibly unfortunate, but it’s the world we’re living in. I’m just trying to do everything I can to break that and tell my own story to people.”

Rep. Mike Weissman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for an Aurora state senate seat, right,checks a map while canvassing with Isabela Martinez in Aurora on Thursday, June 20, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

A mystery PAC

The avalanche of dark money in Weissman’s Aurora race is the starkest example of that new reality and of who’s trying to shape the story told to voters. To bolster Weissman, groups tied to labor, conservation and education have spent more than $280,000. On the other side of the race, a group with unknown donors, Representation Matters, has spent more than $430,000 to boost his opponent, Idris Keith.

Representation Matters sources its money to another group, Brighter Colorado Futures, which in turn cites donations from Democracy Wins, a super PAC registered last month by a national political consultant who’d previously worked for Mike Bloomberg, among others.

Messages sent to Representation Matters and to the political consultant who created the super PAC, Jay Petterson, were not returned.

Keith said “anyone would be concerned” about the amount of money being spent in the race, including his own. But while he distanced himself from the third-party spending on his behalf, he lumped together Weissman and the outside groups backing him. Keith called the attack ads he’s faced “complete nonsense, false and defamatory.

In all, more than $800,000 has been spent in the Weissman-Keith race. That total is likely to increase in the days before Election Day. All of that money will be spent on a seat that, come November, will almost certainly be won by a Democrat.

Idris Keith, Democratic candidate for the Colorado Senate, left, talks with James Keown while canvassing in Aurora on Thursday, June 20, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Keith, for his part, said he has “no idea” why so much money would pour into this race. Weissman points to his history at the Capitol and fights for progressive issues as luring it.

“A lot of money is being spent against candidates who identify themselves, or have been identified by others, as progressive Democrats, meaning they want to use the mechanisms of government to find solutions,” Weissman said in an interview, adding that he defines himself as such. “Sometimes that means changing an entrenched status quo, and some people would not like to not see that status quo change.”

“There’s this whole competition to be more progressive”

The ideological differences in some races — like Hernández and Espenoza or Epps and Camacho — are distinct. Much of the institutional Democratic Party has lined up against Epps, who has openly castigated party and House leadership and was reprimanded during last November’s special session after joining protestors against the war in Gaza in the gallery overlooking the floor. Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser, House Speaker Julie McCluskie and Senate President Steve Fenberg have all endorsed Camacho. (Epps noted that none of those people supported her first run, either, when she faced similar headwinds from Democratic leadership.)

But there’s less clarity elsewhere, suggesting the fight isn’t just about policy or past and future votes. Amabile, for instance, has received the backing of One Main Street affiliates but has consistently been among the more progressive legislators on criminal justice issues, substance use and mental health. Opponents deGruy Kennedy and Stewart both said they were likely aligned on most issues.

Stewart said she would differ on her “approach” — meaning she felt she’d be more collaborative. That’s a distinction that Michael Carter, the vice president of Aurora Public Schools who’s running for a House seat in Aurora, made with his opponent, Lindstrom.

DeGruy Kennedy and Lindstrom countered that their approach wouldn’t involve taking money from corporate donors or pursuing business interests’ demands — itself an echo of Rep. Mabrey’s point about the tension in the Democratic Party when it comes to economic policy.

Reps. Chris deGruy Kennedy, left, and Jenny Willford, right, watch as the votes come in on a bill during the final day of the 2024 legislative session at the Colorado Capitol in Denver on May 8, 2024. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

More broadly, though, the people spending the money are adamant that they think the races are a battle for the direction of the Democratic Party and that there’s generally a clear distinction — in “approach,” ideology or both — between the various pairs of candidates.

“Absolutely,” Short said.

“Our endorsed candidates have this track record of effective leadership, transparency, accountability, really focusing on practical solutions,” he continued. “Whereas we often find ourselves up against or opposing candidates who either lack the experience or most certainly the pragmatism needed to implement effective policies.”

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Espenoza and Hernández also viewed their race as a front in a larger conflict. Espenoza said left-wing advocates and candidates wanted to “take over” the party, echoing concerns from others, like Carter, about the influence of left-wing activists and advocates. Hernández said the leftward shift was already underway and that the shift threatened candidates like Espenoza and others, whom he accused of being moderate or outright conservative.

Meanwhile, spending in the Arvada Senate race shows how muddled the definitions of “progressive” have become. Nearly $300,000 in outside money has been spent to influence that primary. Much of that comes from A Whole Lot of People For Change, and all of it benefits state Rep. Lindsey Daugherty’s campaign for the Senate.

She identifies as a progressive Democrat and cites her work on reproductive rights and protection for workers and consumers. But she also brings a critical eye to making sure legislation is enforceable and workable, she said.

“There’s this whole competition to be more progressive, but if you just look at the bills that I’ve run, what I’ve done the past 10 years in my legal career, I would say that I am a progressive Democrat,” Daugherty said. “But I think we do need to pass laws that can stand up in court.”

Her opponent, Westminster City Councilor Obi Ezeadi, likewise claims the mantle of progressive — but also pushes back against claims he’s a socialist.

“(The outside money groups are) trying to put us into boxes,” Ezeadi, who’s donated more than $26,000 to his own campaign, said in an interview. “They’re saying Obi is progressive, so he must believe X, Y, Z. And I do not!”

Murib, the state party chair, said he doesn’t think the collection of primaries is some overarching struggle for the direction of politics in Colorado. Still, he was concerned about how the broader conflicts would affect the Democratic Party as it nears a decade in power.

“It’s something that weighs on my mind quite a bit,” he said. “The way we talk about each other has a real impact.”

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