A statewide race that usually flies not only under the radar but also below the birds is generating a lot of squawking his year, as big bucks are backing candidates for a at-large University of Colorado board of regents seat.
As of Friday, Republican candidate Heidi Ganahl has raised nearly $173,000, some $50,000 from her own contributions and $7,500 from the Colorado Republican Committee, campaign finance reports show. Democrat Alice Madden has contributions of nearly $56,700. A political action committee also infused more than $91,000 into Madden's bid, for online and direct-mail ads, record show.
The campaign budget for the last statewide regent elected four years ago, Democrat Steve Ludwig, was $30,000.
Ganahl and Madden are vying for one of nine unpaid positions on the board, which oversees the CU system's annual budget of $3.5 billion, selects and evaluates university presidents, decides tuition rates, approves new degree programs and sets salaries for faculty.
The board seat is being vacated by Steve Bosley, a term-limited Republican from Longmont.
Political analysts say the winner could sway the board's majority power, which has been held by Republicans for decades, and potentially change spending priorities.
"Generally, this is a low-key race, which is why the involvement of so much money is interesting," said Simon Lomax, associate energy policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based libertarian think tank.
The race will appear on every Colorado ballot; the state is one of just a few where voters choose the regents for a public university system. Seven CU regents are elected by Colorado Congressional districts, with two at-large seats covering the state.
Ganahl, 50, a resident of Superior, earned a bachelor's degree in business from CU Boulder and gained fame after founding and selling a $100 million business, Camp Bow Wow, the nation's largest pet care franchise.
Madden, 57, is from Louisville, and earned both an undergraduate degree and a law degree from CU Boulder. She was a state representative for House District 10 from 2000 to 2008 and House Majority Leader from 2004 to 2008.
Both women told The Gazette they want to focus on ensuring CU is affordable for all students.
Madden also wants to improve access for those who traditionally don't attend college and cultivate diversity.
"We have well over 30 percent minority population in Colorado, and that number is not reflected on campus in student body, staff or faculty," she said.
Ganahl said she wants to maintain academic excellence and ensure "academic freedom stays alive and well with feisty collaborative debate and a focus on teaching students how to think, not what to think."
Madden started working in July as executive director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU's law school.
CU employees can serve on the board, according to university policy, but opponents have questioned the potential for a conflict of interest.
Madden said Friday that several regents have been employees, which total more than 30,000, and pointed out that a Democratic regent candidate for Congressional District 1 also works for CU.
"It's been made a big deal, but it's not unusual," she said. "Just because you love an institution doesn't mean you can't look at it with a critical eye."
Climate change also has entered into the debate, with the Independence Institute reporting that California billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer is behind some of the advertising for Madden, with some backers known for pushing fossil fuel divestment of university portfolios.
Madden said she had heard about the $91,000 donation from Blueflower Action, a PAC, but didn't know anything about it.
"I'm happy there's such great interest in the race," she said. "It's important."
But she's dismayed by the political bent of the bid.
"They say all's fair in love and war, and politics unfortunately seems to be war these days."
Ganahl said she was disappointed that the race has become so political.
"As a first-time candidate, I knew I had my hands full when she (Madden) entered the race," she said.