Bennet's bucks dwarf political rivals' funds

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

It’s not clear which candidate is Sleepy, which one is Grumpy and whether any of them are Bashful, but when it comes to raising money for Colorado’s U.S. Senate race, there’s Michael Bennet, and then there are the dwarfs.

Even with one of his Republican challengers pouring more than $1.2 million into his own campaign, the Democratic incumbent’s fundraising feats leave his rivals looking pint-sized. According to totals reported to the Federal Election Commission over the last two weeks, more than half the money raised for the election so far has gone to Bennet; he has about seven times as much cash in the bank as any of the candidates seeking his job; and he spent almost as much in the first three months of this year as all four of his opponents combined.

Bennet’s primary challenger, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, trailed the incumbent’s fundraising take by a substantial margin but says he has enough money to continue waging his grassroots campaign. The two will face voters in an August 10 primary, and the winner will sprint to the general election three months later.

That same calendar lies ahead for three Republicans seeking Bennet’s seat, all of whom are likely to make the primary ballot. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton led the pack in fundraising this quarter, followed closely by former state Sen. Tom Wiens, who handed his own campaign another half million dollars. Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck improved only a little on the meager haul he posted at the end of last year. However, Buck has benefited from roughly $1 million spent on his behalf by outside groups and could benefit further after landing the endorsement of a prominent Republican senator who promised to steer cash Buck’s way. A handful of other Republicans are also seeking the nomination.


The top graph shows Sen. Michael Bennet’s fundraising prowess since last year; the second
graph depicts Bennet’s towering amount of cash on hand. -Graphs by Ernest Luning

 

Observers predict the election could cost the nominees as much as $15 million apiece. The 2008 Senate election saw Democrat Mark Udall, who won, raise and spend $12 million to defeat his Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, who banked $7 million.

Boasting his campaign’s “most successful quarter yet,” Bennet last week announced collecting more than $1.4 million through March 31 — the figure turned out to be $1,405,177, according to documents filed with the FEC — vaulting his total take above $6 million. After spending $1,317,460 since January, Bennet ended the quarter with $3,570,299 cash on hand.

Though Norton spent some money earlier this year on a pair of TV ads, Bennet has had the air to himself for the last month with a series of commercials, the latest featuring his three daughters touting their father’s interest in cleaning up Washington.

Romanoff, for his part, regularly attacks Bennet’s prodigious fundraising ability as evidence the former Denver Public Schools chief — appointed to the seat last January when Ken Salazar stepped down to run the Department of Interior — is beholden to moneyed interests. Bennet has raised $1,476,084, or about a quarter of his total, from political action and other committees, but Romanoff is not impressed.

Bennet’s primary challenger, who told The Colorado Statesman in January he would even turn down help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has made a point of turning down PAC donations and calls on the other candidates to do the same.

Romanoff boasted last quarter that he raised money from more individual Colorado residents than any other candidate statewide, but this quarter passes those bragging rights to Bennet. A campaign visit from President Barack Obama in February packed thousands of $25-a-ticket donors into a Denver auditorium, helping enable Bennet to trumpet “nearly 12,000 new donors” this quarter in an e-mail to supporters. A Romanoff spokesman said the campaign counted 4,235 contributions but couldn’t say how many individual donors ponied up this quarter, since donors can make multiple contributions.

Romanoff, who announced his primary challenge to Bennet in September, posted $385,647 for the quarter and also spent most of it. The Democrat ended the quarter with about $23,000 more in his bank account than when it started, reporting $501,959 on hand. It was Romanoff’s best quarter to date, bringing his total fundraising to $1,015,555.

Romanoff campaign spokesman Roy Teicher said it was “absolutely” a strong quarter and said the rate of donations increased dramatically during March, when Romanoff beat Bennet in precinct caucuses.

“It was, for us, a very solid quarter,” Teicher told The Statesman. “But it also tells the story of what’s going on right now in the campaign. Since the caucuses, the contributions have increased significantly. There’s a real turning point to be found in mid March, and that’s backed up by the contributions as well as the results of the caucuses themselves.”

Teicher said campaign receipts in March totaled more than those received in January and February combined, amounting to roughly a quarter of a million dollars.

“I think there’s an interesting script being written here,” added Teicher, who worked as an actor and comedy writer in decades past.

Norton, the fundraising leader among the three Republicans vying for the nomination, raised $815,306 and, like the Democrats, spent most of what she took in during the first quarter. Norton reported $643,342 cash on hand, about a third of the $1,875,690 she’s raised since entering the race in September.

Norton narrowly trailed Buck in a statewide straw poll conducted at Republican precinct caucuses last month and has since announced she’ll bypass the state assembly and petition onto the ballot. Nonetheless, her campaign proclaimed, “Norton has proven to be the only conservative candidate with the ability to parlay grassroots support into a strong campaign war chest. All told,” reads an e-mail sent to supporters announcing her fundraising haul, “83 percent of Norton’s 4,560 individual donors reside in Colorado.”

The vast majority of money Wiens raised also came from an individual donor residing in Colorado: Wiens himself. The Castle Rock businessman — who loaned his campaign $540,000 and wrote himself a check for $101,250 last year — kicked in another $598,319 and harvested just a hair over $100,000 from individual contributors. That brings his total take for the first quarter to $700,051. Including the $1,239,569 provided by the candidate, the Wiens campaign has raised a total $1,4284,69 since he entered the race in November. Like most of the other candidates, Wiens spent almost everything he raised this quarter, including repaying an earlier $540,000 loan to the candidate, leaving his campaign with $544,707 cash on hand at the end of March.

When Wiens announced his run late last year, he said he was willing to invest half a million dollars in the campaign, referring to it as “start-up capital.” He said at the time he had a 100-member finance team and was ready to take on Norton, who has superstar Republican lobbyist Charlie Black, her brother-in-law, in her corner.

Wiens, like Norton, is petitioning onto the ballot rather than pursue a spot on the primary ballot from delegates to the state assembly. In Colorado, statewide candidates need 10,500 valid signatures, 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts, to make the primary. In a twist, Bennet, who emerged from county assemblies last week with the support of about 40 percent of the delegates headed to the Democratic state assembly — well over the 30 percent required to win a spot in the primary election — is also circulating nominating petitions. Unlike the Republicans, because Democratic rules are different, Bennet doesn’t have to chose between petitioning and going through the assembly. Bennet’s campaign has said he’s asking for signatures as a way to build grassroots support and that he expects to make the ballot at the assembly.

Buck, who narrowly beat Norton in a statewide straw poll conducted at Republican precinct caucuses last month, reported $218,791 total receipts — including a $100,000 loan from the candidate — significantly improving on the $40,000 he raised last quarter. Since entering the race about a year ago, Buck has raised a total of $749,461, the least of any of the major candidates. His campaign ran lean through caucuses and county assemblies during the first quarter, spending only $78,570. That left $416,642 cash on hand.

With his two GOP primary rivals avoiding the state assembly, Buck will have the floor to himself and aims to parlay his own grassroots support to a primary win. In the meantime, though his fundraising haul lags far behind Norton and Wiens, Buck is benefiting from unprecedented spending by outside groups boosting his candidacy so early in the campaign. Following an earlier TV ad blitz sponsored by the Campaign for Liberty, the Virginia-based Americans for Job Security dropped roughly $600,000 into a statewide ad supporting Buck last week. At the same time, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, endorsed Buck and promised to throw the weight of his fundraising PAC behind the underdog.

“With the support of Colorado’s grassroots on our side, and with the boost of the Senate Conservatives Fund, we are well on our way to making history in Colorado,” Buck said in a release announcing his fundraising totals.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com