Keep big money out of politics. Americans routinely hear this seemingly virtuous goal, as politicians impose federal and state campaign contribution limits.
Colorado’s 2018 gubernatorial race illustrates how these laws don’t work as intended.
Democratic nominee Jared Polis spent $1.2 million to win a seat on the Colorado Board of Education, launching his political career 18 years ago. His opponent spent $10,000, or 0.8 percent as much as Polis. Traditionally, candidates for the Board of Education spend thousands — not tens of thousands, let alone millions — on their campaigns.
Polis spent $6 million on his first campaign for Congress in 2008.
The Boulder businessman has spent at least $13 million of his own money on this year’s governor’s race, and the games don’t really begin until a day after Labor Day.
Good for Congressman Polis. He created his fortune as a smart dot.com entrepreneur at an early age. He digitized his family’s greeting card company and sold the online assets for $780 million in cash and stocks in 1999. Polis revolutionized the floral industry by creating ProFlowers in 1998. He sold the company for $477 million in cash in 2006.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimated Polis more than doubled his personal wealth in the past 10 years while serving in Congress.
This means Polis can generate tens of millions of dollars for his campaign in the time it takes to write a check. No one should resent him this. Inventive Americans deserve the rewards of big financial success. Their constructive endeavors typically benefit everyone, rich and poor alike.
State regulations, not Polis, make this campaign insanely unfair.
No law can prevent the super-rich from spending as they please on themselves, which includes their campaigns. Courts would not and should not allow it.
Yet, state law hobbles Republican nominee Walker Stapleton — because he lacks enormous personal wealth. It forbids him any reasonable opportunity to raise money that comes close to matching what Polis can and will spend on himself.
For perspective, Stapleton is not impoverished. Not even close. A Harvard-educated investment banker, he served as CEO and CFO of several successful companies before voters elected him state treasurer in 2010. Stapleton’s wife, Jenna, runs the family’s modest-but-generous $1.4 million charitable trust.
Unlike Polis, Stapleton is not among the wealthiest fraction of Americans. He cannot spend millions in personal funds trying to get elected. He has to raise money from supporters, the old-fashioned way.
That would be fine, if not for a regulation Polis doesn’t worry about. Colorado’s campaign finance law allows a person to donate only $575 to a gubernatorial candidate in the primary and general election, for a total of $1,150. While self-funders shake hands and kiss babies, their opponents get mired in sluggish, low-yield fundraising efforts that cannot possibly keep up.
The ill-conceived campaign finance law counters the stated intent. It allows a wealthy few to buy public office while hobbling nearly everyone else. This uneven playing field explains the modern spate of self-funders seeking public office in our state. They know the law favors them and disfavors the vast majority of potential challengers.
The trend of buying elections inspired Initiative 173 on November’s ballot. Sponsored by a group called Stop Buying Our Elections, the measures states: “If a candidate contributes $1 Million or more of their own money to their campaign, then other candidates in that race may accept aggregate campaign contributions five times greater than the limits specified in current law.”
This would allow total contributions of $5,750 to a single candidate. It means more productive fundraising while preventing any single donor from buying a campaign.
With or without Initiative 173, it is time to reassess and overhaul unjust campaign finance regulations. Coloradans want fair elections, not campaign laws that give extraordinary advantage to 1 percenters seeking high office.
the gazette editorial board