In 1994, a resident of Colorado Springs named Mike Bird ran for the Republican nomination for governor of Colorado.
He was an experienced politician and professional economist who had held a number of elected offices, slowly working his way up through the political ranks. He spent eight years as a Colorado Springs City Council member, getting elected president of the Colorado Municipal League along the way. He next won election to the Colorado House of Representatives, then the state Senate, and for a number of years held what many people believe to be the top legislative job in Colorado — chairman of the then all-powerful Joint Budget Committee.
When Bird announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor, there was widespread approval in the news media. Clearly, candidate Bird was a proven vote-getter and an experienced public official. He was the instant favorite to win the Republican nomination in 1994. One political writer noted: “There’s only one person who knows Colorado better than incumbent Democratic governor Roy Romer — and that’s Republican Mike Bird.”
Then, suddenly, Bruce Benson, a millionaire oilman, decided to challenge Bird for the GOP nomination. Benson made clear he had plenty of money and was willing to spend it on lots of slick television commercials. The TV ads portrayed Benson (with oil wells pumping in the background) as a savvy entrepreneur who could bring his successful business skills to running the state government of Colorado.
The impact on the news media was immediate. Bird dropped instantly from front-runner to almost out-of-sight. News reporters stopped writing about his news releases and his public appearances. The main topic of conversation in the news was which candidate had the most money (Benson) and thus was an odds-on sure bet to win the primary election.
It is our contention that the news media, seeing how much money Benson was spending, were “like deer frozen in the headlights.” Blinded by all that campaign money, they stopped covering who would make the best governor of Colorado and concentrated on the money story.
State Sen. Bird won the Colorado Republican Assembly, but, with the consequential impact of countless TV ads, Benson won the Republican primary. The incumbent, Romer, was well-fortified with money too, however, and won the general election. Benson went on to do a fine job applying his business skills as president of the University of Colorado.
Everyone knows our political process is awash in money. This is unlikely to change even though two-thirds of the American public support a variety of campaign fundraising reforms. The campaign with the biggest war chest does not always win, yet the correlation of money with victory is high.
A Republican candidate for governor this year loaned his primary election campaign $5 million in an unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination. Democratic candidate for governor Jared Polis is reportedly giving his campaign something in the range of $15 million to $20 million.
Millions of campaign dollars, many from outside of Colorado, are pouring into this state’s U.S. House District 6 election. The money in this one U.S. House election could go as high as $8 million or more.
There are several restrictions in Colorado on how much one can give to candidates. And there are campaign contribution disclosure rules. Yet there are no limits on a wealthy candidate self-funding a campaign. That is how Donald Trump overwhelmed his Republican primary opponents in 2016.
The U.S. Supreme Court has essentially ruled that regulating how a person spends their money in their campaign would be to deny a person their First Amendment right of freedom of speech. Thus a person’s campaign donation to their campaign must be unregulated, just as newspapers, books, or billboards cannot be regulated.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that candidates can avoid campaign finance restrictions by forming undisclosed “independent” committees that spend in parallel with the candidate’s regular campaign.
Candidates who are not rich must spend hours every day to raise vast sums of money, mostly from wealthy people or special interest groups, and this raises serious questions about the integrity of our constitutional democracy.
There is a proposed Colorado constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot that tries to lessen a millionaire’s advantage in state elections.
It would raise campaign contribution limits per person in statewide elections five times over the limit (to $5,750) for candidates running against opponents who have contributed more than $1 million to their campaign.
This amendment is likely to be approved because it sounds like a fairness reform — helping David to compete equally with Goliath. But this is hardly the cure for large imbalances in Colorado political fundraising and thus is largely a lame measure.
We voters and the news media need to educate ourselves to “look beyond the money” and investigate the policies and principles that will guide prospective office holders. This is hard to do with the barrage of candidate and issue commercials constantly on our TVs and internet devices. Sadly, simplistic negative “cut-down” ads work. Serious policy issues can seldom be addressed in 30-second TV ads or on bumper stickers or postcard mailings.
Voters should check out candidate and party websites for more detailed information. Voters should also look for reports that de-emphasize which candidates are winning the money race and are leading in pre-Election Day polls. Voters should turn to news sources that emphasize a candidate’s policy solutions and which candidates would make the best elected officeholders.
Finally, we call on whoever is the next governor to establish a commission to examine promising state level campaign finance reforms. Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and Montana are experimenting with reforms that might work and be constitutional.
Every citizen should have the right of access to impartial facts, criticism and competing ideas about all the plausible candidates for office. The integrity of the American democracy requires a system of free, fair and open elections untainted by money. Colorado has not yet figured out a way to effectively regulate money in politics, but we must press on to make character and ideas more important than money in our elections.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College.