Money begins to pour into Colorado Democratic primaries, with legislators cutting checks

Hundreds of thousands of dollars already are being dumped into Democratic primary elections for several safe statehouse seats, including an unprecedented trend of sitting Democratic legislators giving money to their colleague’s opponent.

Across 10 contested Democratic primaries along the Front Range, for instance, more than $1.1 million already has been raised ahead of the June contest, according to the most recent financial reports released earlier this month. Some — like an open Senate seat in Arvada and a House seat in Lakewood — have surpassed $100,000 in cumulative fundraising with five months to go before the primary and with outside spending yet to begin.

Spending on Democratic primary races has slowly increased in recent years, as the party’s power in the statehouse has grown and competition for safe seats has intensified. Traditional Republican backers, like business groups, are now spending more to influence Democratic primaries as Republican power in the Capitol has reached a historic nadir and more left-wing candidates run in state primaries. Simultaneously, Democrats’ growing power has revealed deeper ideological and stylistic fissures among both candidates and voters that manifest in primary challenges and spending.

“It is a lot of money,” said Morgan Carroll, who previously served as both the president of the state Senate and the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. Her partner, Rep. Mike Weissman, is running in a competitive primary for a state Senate seat. “Overall, our general elections have actually become more expensive, and I think our primary elections have become more expensive. And maybe it’s not a perfect truth, but for the most part, the bluer the state, the more expensive the primary.”

When Carroll first ran 20 years ago, a competitive primary would maybe hit $50,000 in fundraising. That’s become routine: In Lakewood, for instance, Kyra deGruy Kennedy has raised more than $63,000 in a race to replace her husband, Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, in the House. Her opponent, Lakewood City Councilwoman Rebekah Stewart, has topped $72,000.

Arvada Rep. Lindsey Daugherty has more than $111,000 in her bid to move to the state Senate, against just over $100,000 from Westminster City Councilman Obi Ezeadi, who’s funded more than a quarter of that total himself. Various sitting legislators have donated to both sides of that race.

Several of the races — which include seats in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and the east metro suburbs — are generally between a more left-wing candidate, favored by progressive activists, unions and their allies, and a more moderate or mainstream opponent, backed by traditional Democrat boosters and, increasingly, business groups. The Colorado Apartment Association, for instance, has donated thousands of dollars to more moderate candidates in Aurora and Arvada, as the legislature continues to debate sweeping solutions to the state’s housing crisis.

Loren Furman, the president and CEO of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, said business groups broadly were looking to back more moderate candidates. Carroll said some of the division falls along a populist or corporate fault line, but she also said it’s hard to pull a consistent thread that connects every contest. Those divisions are sharpened by new corporate spending, she said, and further influenced by local voter tendencies and candidates’ stylistic approach to legislating.

All of the contested metro primaries are currently held by Democratic legislators and are generally considered safe Democratic seats. That means the primary contests on June 25 will likely determine who will head to the legislature come November.

Three freshman Democrats are facing primary challengers: Denver Reps. Elisabeth Epps and Tim Hernández, and Boulder Rep. Junie Joseph. Hernández, a teacher who’s among the more left-wing members of the legislature, is up against immigration judge Cecilia Espinoza, whom he beat in an August vacancy committee. Espinoza raised $50,000 in the last two months of the year, in the wake of criticism that Hernández faced for comments and social media posts about Israel and Gaza.

While primaries aren’t new, sitting lawmakers wading into those races against their colleagues is, legislators and Democratic campaign veterans said.

Rep. Judy Amabile has donated to opponents of two of her House colleagues who are facing primary challenges, Epps and Junie Joseph. Both Epps and Joseph also donated to Amabile’s opponent for an open state Senate seat.

Amabile said her donations “aren’t necessarily against anybody.”

“My support for somebody’s opponent, it can be a lot of different things,” she said. “You can have a friendship, or I can think this person is better suited, or I more line up with them on policy. … I think it certainly can be an affirmation that you support somebody or want to be supportive of them.”

Part of what’s fueling the inter-legislative donations is specific to Epps and the fallout from the November special session, during which Epps disrupted House proceedings and castigated other legislators over a pro-Palestine legislative amendment. As of early January, more than a dozen Democrats — including Senate President Steve Fenberg and House Majority Leader Monica Duran — have endorsed or donated to lawyer Sean Camacho, who’d briefly run in the primary against Epps in 2022.

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The November incident prompted House Speaker Julie McCluskie to publicly rebuke Epps, an attorney who backed an assault-weapons ban and safe drug-use sites last year. McCluskie also removed Epps from a powerful House committee (Epps was also part of a lawsuit against the legislature for violating the state’s open-meeting laws).

In the weeks since he filed to run, Camacho has pulled in more than $58,000. That’s more than Epps has on hand at the moment, though critics and supporters alike noted her unique ability to fundraise through grassroots and online support. In 2022, Epps’ primary race was the most expensive in the state, with Epps directly raising more than $232,000 to her opponent’s $185,000.

Carroll said the unusual legislative donations in the Epps-Camacho race went beyond a left-or-moderate ideological split and instead touched on what “stylistic” approaches lawmakers — and voters — want in the Capitol.

“Not everybody’s necessarily landing in the same place,” Carroll said, “but I think you’ll find a lot of the support for Sean Camacho … from sitting legislators is because they want someone they can work with.”

Denver Post reporter Nick Coltrain contributed to this report.

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