Corporations and billionaires -- and their extravagant contributions to the presidential campaigns -- have drawn the most national attention this year in terms of campaign financing. But in Colorado it is the same handful of wealthy Democrats and the labor unions continuing to play a steady hand.
Three Democrats, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, software founder Tim Gill and philanthropist Pat Stryker, top the list of individual donors in an I-News Network analysis of federal and state contribution records for the past five years.
Change in the order is represented by the Republican SuperPac American Crossroads, led by Karl Rove among others, also spending lavishly in the state since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision made such giving possible.
But among individual givers, a Republican donor isn't found until the No. 7 slot, where Joe Coors shows up spending heavily on his own 7th Congressional District campaign.
The I-News Network analysis shows that the top 15 individual contributors and the top 15 contributing organizations combined to spend $86 million. That's perhaps not what state voters had in mind 10 years ago when they passed Amendment 27, which sharply limited contributions to candidates and political parties.
However, Amendment 27 left unfettered donations to the so-called "527s," political groups that can spend freely but can't formally coordinate with any campaign. And it is the skill with which the Democrats play that game that has left even some Republicans offering what sounds like praise.
"They expect those organizations to deliver in a big way," said Rob Witwer, a former Republican state lawmaker who in 2010 co-authored with Adam Schrager "The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care)."
"There's a lot of discipline in the way they spread their money around," Witwer said. "There's accountability."
The I-News study was conducted in conjunction with the Investigative News Network, the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Institute for Money in State Politics and CU News Corps in a report that merged federal and state data to give a rare comprehensive look at top donors in multiple states. One key finding: Big donors are not restricted by any sense of state lines.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, has donated about $500,000 this campaign season to a California state ballot initiative.
Gill, the retired software entrepreneur and gay rights activist, is another prominent example. He has given $525,000 to three Colorado 527s this year -- Colorado Accountable Government Alliance, Coalition for Colorado's Future and The Community Information Project. But Gill has also given in more than 30 other states, including to individual candidates.
In the five-year I-News study, which covers federal campaign reports from 2007 through June 30 this year and state contributions from 2007 through Sept. 12., Gill has given a total of $3,683,894.
Unions take five of the top six spots for organizations in Colorado. But in addition to American Crossroads, the traditionally conservative National Rifle Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Freedom's Watch, a 501c(4) "social welfare" nonprofit also make the top 15. The liberal Patriot Majority, then a 501c(4) and now a SuperPac, also makes the list.
"I think a big reason for the Democrats' effectiveness in the last few election cycles is their ability to tap extra-large donors and use those as anchors to fund large projects," said Witwer.
"A lot of Republican donors tend to be motivated around certain issues," Witwer said. "Donating to (political campaign) infrastructure is harder to sell, it doesn't motivate people as much as a single issue would. But in the long term, infrastructure is the most important component in winning elections."
Polis, Gill and Stryker were central figures in Witwer's book, depicted as having helped bankroll and strategize the 2004 Democratic takeover of the state House and Senate, and the 2006 takeover of the governor's mansion and congressional delegation.
Polis tops the list of individuals after spending $6 million on his successful 2008 campaign for the state's 2nd Congressional District seat. Since then, he's worked on building his legislative clout, donating to state and national candidates individually and through his leadership PAC.
Stryker gave the three Colorado 527 groups $125,000 in August. The I-News analysis indicates she's donated $283,000 in the 2012 election cycle so far, down considerably from almost $817,000 in the 2010 cycle and more than $1.6 million in the 2008 cycle. But in both those cycles, the Fort Collins medical device heiress made large donations later in September and in October.
Other top 15 contributors to Democratic causes included writer Bruce Berger and Vail Resorts chairman Robert Katz.
The only non-candidate Republican supporters in the top 15 are Philip Anschutz and Gregory Maffei. Anschutz made fortunes in oil, telecom, railroads and entertainment, with Forbes listing his net worth at $7.6 billion. He has donated $621,050 to Colorado political causes in the last five years. Maffei is president and CEO of Liberty Media. This year, he's given $213,300 to three GOP SuperPacs.
The top 15 organizations spent far more than the top 15 individuals in Colorado -- about $62 million compared to about $24 million. The biggest power players: Unions.
The National Education Association, a national teachers union, spent almost $1.4 million in October 2010 opposing Ken Buck's GOP Senate bid, which he lost to Sen. Michael Bennet. Overall, the NEA spent some $9.8 million in Colorado during the last five years.
The United Food & Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Colorado Education Association also give heavily to Democratic causes.
So far this election cycle, several of the unions are giving heavily to the same state-level 527s Gill and Stryker are supporting.
Witwer said the 2002 law offered unions a fundraising advantage by setting up small-donor committees that allow them to leverage $50 donations from individual members -- often through payroll deductions -- for a total contribution of $2,250, as opposed to a $200 maximum for individuals, in state house and senate races. The limits can be given twice per cycle, for primary and general elections.
"I've seen many Republicans try to set up small-donor committees and the administration costs are just too high to make it worthwhile," he said. "The unions (have) large pools of people, so they can justify doing it."
But Luis Toros, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, took a different view.
"People who don't like unions think that tilts the playing field toward unions," he said. "But that's all disclosed money, money that goes to candidates."
On the Republican side, most organizations spend on national races like the 2008 and 2010 Colorado U.S. Senate contests. Only the National Rifle Association routinely tends to give to both state and national candidates, the I-News study shows.
The I-News Network is a nonprofit newsroom collaborating with Colorado news organizations to cover important issues. Learn more at iNewsNetwork.org.