DENVER, CO – As any politico will attest, a candidate who’s outspent 150 to 1 by the opposition has almost no shot of winning the election.
That’s what makes the 2010 Colorado cycle so remarkable. In an analysis conducted by The Denver Post, liberal super PACs spent nearly 150 times more than their conservative counterparts on state races. Pro-Democrat independent-expenditure 527 committees spent $9.1 million, more than twice as much as the $4.1 million spent by those favoring Republicans.
With that kind of funding superiority, you’d expect Democrats to have blown through their Republican challengers like a gale-force wind. At the very least, Colorado should look a lot like California, with Democrats in charge of both legislative houses and a majority of the constitutional offices.
Of course, that’s not what happened. Democrats had a pretty good year, keeping the governor’s mansion and control of the state Senate. But Republicans had an even better year, winning back the state House by flipping five Democratic seats and one Independent. Republicans also captured one Senate seat, giving them 15 seats to the Democratic Party’s 20.
After winning the governor’s seat, Democrats were 0 and 3 for state constitutional offices. Republicans Attorney General John Suthers won reelection as expected, but then GOP candidates Walker Stapleton and Scott Gessler ousted Democratic incumbents in the races for state treasurer and secretary of state.
Colorado Republicans also flipped two congressional seats held by Democrats. The GOP’s most painful loss came with the defeat of Republican Ken Buck to Democrat Michael Bennet in the Senate race, one that had been seen as eminently winnable for Republicans.
By all accounts, Colorado Republicans have nothing to rival the Democratic Party’s network of Super PACs, independent-expenditure committees, advocacy groups and liberal media. That’s been the case since 2004, when the so-called Gang of Four liberal millionaires–Tim Gill, Pat Stryker, Jared Polis and Rutt Bridges–pooled their resources to elect Democratic candidates to the state legislature, creating what is now known as the Colorado Model.
What allowed Republicans to overcome their funding deficit in 2010 was the combination of a conservative national climate, low voter turnout, and a grassroots army of foot soldiers known as the Tea Party, according to analysts.
The 2010 election was seen as a referendum on President Obama, who had alarmed conservatives and independents with his national health-care plan, the stimulus packages, and trillion-dollar national debt. It was the first election to witness the power of the burgeoning Tea Party movement and its shake-up of the Republican Party.
While Colorado Republicans had a good year, analysts say the infusion of liberal money may have prevented them from having a great year, as was the case with Republicans in other states. Democrats note that despite their funding advantages, Republicans have the voter registration edge, with 37 percent Republicans to 32 percent Democrats.
At the same time, the 2010 election may have shown that campaign spending has its limits. For all their campaign ads, robocalls and mailers, Colorado’s liberal campaign committees were unable to convince their supporters to turn out at the polls. Meanwhile, Republicans upheld their reputation as ballot-box die-hards who will show up even in off-year elections, while the Tea Party mobilized new and previously uninvolved voters on behalf of GOP candidates.
“There was a huge fall-off in votes. In 2008, almost 250,000 people voted. In 2010, it was only about 100,000,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “And the vast majority of those who didn’t vote were voters who had supported Obama in 2008. That’s a nice little voter advantage for Republicans of about 100,000-plus.”
While it’s true that Colorado Republicans benefited from the national anti-Obama mood, they were also hampered by the chaos in the governor’s race. Democrat John Hickenlooper coasted to victory after Republican frontrunner Scott McInnis became embroiled in a plagiarism scandal, leaving the field to then-Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo, and accidental GOP nominee Dan Maes who ultimately garnered just 11 percent of the vote.
Conservatives agree that they need to put together a network that can compete with the liberal model if they are to stay competitive in 2012 and beyond. It’s unlikely that they’ll keep their voter turnout edge in November, given the Democratic excitement generated by Obama at the top of the ticket.
Making that task more difficult is that there are only so many gazillionaires, and in Colorado they reside almost exclusively on the left. State Republican Party chair Ryan Call says the long-term solution lies in campaign-spending reform at the federal level.
“I credit our success [in 2010] to the caliber of our candidates and the worthiness of our ideas,” said Colorado Republican Party chair Ryan Call. “It’s fairly common that Republicans get outspent 2 to 1 and still prevail. But when it’s 5 to 1 or 10 to 1, it’s hard to have any semblance of fairness.”