Election 2010: shift of power

State House now GOP; Senate stays with Democrats

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Voters in Colorado decided on Election Day that the two major parties should share power in the state rather than having it exclusively in the hands of the Democrats.

As of press time, Republicans had won the state House, 33-32 over their counterparts. Democrats previously led with a 37-27-1 advantage. However, Democrats on Thursday said they were still awaiting final tallies, including counting of provisional ballots, from two legislative races, House Districts 29 and 33. Write-in votes are still being counted in HD 61, which had been held by Rep. Kathleen Curry, I-Gunnison; and counting is not complete in Arapahoe County, although additional votes there for HD 38’s Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, are not likely to change the outcome, as he trailed his Republican opponent by more than 900 votes.

House Majority Leader designee Sal Pace speaks Thursday in Denver shortly before his appointment to the position.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman
Rep. Judy Solano seconds the nomination of Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, as House majority leader when legislators returned to the Capitol Thursday.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman

Tuesday, Democrats gathered at the City Center Marriott in downtown Denver. While the cheering for governor-elect John Hickenlooper and other Democratic winners went on in the ballroom, state House and Senate Democrats were spending a nervous night upstairs, watching returns and counting their wins and losses.

And it was a good night for several newly elected Democrats. Rep.-elect Angela Williams, D-Denver, who succeeds Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, told The Colorado Statesman the race started with five Democratic candidates, four from the Stapleton area in which she lives. Democratic registration in the district is at 70 percent, she said, so the race was “not a real challenge, but I didn’t take that for granted.” Once the primaries were over, Williams spent some of her time walking with Democratic candidates in other districts, such as Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood; and Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon.

“I want to be a voice for the voiceless,” Williams said. She noted she had been laid-off in the past and felt the pain of those in her district who are now going through the same tribulations.

The impact of losing the House was not lost on Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, who handily won re-election Tuesday night. The Joint Budget Committee, which Ferrandino chairs, will have three Democrats and three Republicans in the 2011 session: two Republicans from the House and one from the Senate; and two Democrats from the Senate and one from the House. It could mean the end of the JBC tenure of Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, and the committee’s longest-serving member with four years under his belt. The Democrats’ loss of the House Tuesday night also means Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, who was appointed to JBC in late spring, will be replaced by a Republican.

“It will be tough” to form consensus with a three-three split, Ferrandino told The Statesman Tuesday night, especially if White is replaced by Sen.-elect Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who is finishing his freshman year on the JBC. Fortunately, Ferrandino said, the committee will have two months to work together prior to the start of the 2011 session and that will give the committee members time to have conversations about consensus and to get to know one another.

Thursday, Lambert was elected by the Senate Republican caucus to serve as their representative on the JBC. White was not nominated.

Some of the big behind-the-scenes players in Tuesday’s General Assembly elections were the outside groups: 527, 501(c)(4) and independent expenditure (IEC) committees that raised and spent millions of dollars to influence the statehouse races.

Democratic 527 and IECs raised at least $7 million to keep control of the state House and Senate, and Democrats believe their Republican counterparts raised at least that much, if not more. Campaign finance reports do not bear that out, because many 527s did not report collecting any donations or making any expenditures prior to Election Day. In addition, some electioneering communications was done by 501(c)(4) committees that are not required by law to report their donors or their expenditures.

Such was the case for the two most hotly contested state Senate races on Nov. 2: Senate District 11, held by Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and SD 5, held by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village.

Through Nov. 1, Democratic 527s raised more than $550,000 to hold onto Morse’s seat and Senate President Brandon Shaffer told The Colorado Statesman he believed Republicans raised at least as much. Shaffer said Tuesday night he believed Republicans matched the spending of the Dems “dollar for dollar.”

Most of the money raised to support Morse, $500,000, went for TV, cable and radio buys in the district. On the Republican side, Western Tradition Partnership started running TV ads targeting Morse in the Colorado Springs market, beginning Oct. 14. Unofficial results from The Denver Post show Morse won the race over Republican challenger Owen Hill by 252 votes.

For Schwartz’s seat, Democratic-supporting 527s raised at least $441,000, with almost $200,000 of that going to radio and/or TV ads, and Schwartz took the seat with 652 votes, 1.3 percent more than her Republican opponent, Robert Rankin.

Schwartz also was targeted in TV ads and mailers from Western Tradition Partnership. The 527 committee registered with the Secretary of State on Oct. 13, but ads and mailers targeting Schwartz were already circulating through the district as early as September. The committee, in two campaign finance reports filed Oct. 18 and Nov. 1, reported no donations or expenditures. Shaffer said Tuesday night the Republican committees don’t follow the rules and ignore the laws regarding disclosure.

The registered agent for Western Tradition is Mario Nicolais, an attorney with Hackstaff Gessler, the law firm of Secretary of State-elect Scott Gessler. Nicolais succeeded Gessler as the registered agent for the Independent Auto Dealers Political Committee, which was slapped with more than $500,000 in fines by the Secretary of State for failing to file campaign finance reports for two years when Gessler was its registered agent. Nicolais also is the registered agent for Gessler’s campaign as well as four other Republican-supporting 527 and small donor committees that were active during this election season.

The second-highest amount raised by the Democratic 527s was for the seat in SD 16, which as of press time is likely to go to Senator-elect Jeanne Nicholson.

While some media outlets have reported that Republican Tim Leonard is ahead by 375 votes, Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said those numbers had not been updated since midnight Tuesday. As of Thursday, Carroll said Nicholson was up 518 votes with mail and provisional ballots still to be counted.

The seat, which covers six counties, including Boulder, Clear Creek, Gilpin and Summit, was an open one after Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Breckenridge, decided not to run for re-election. The Democratic 527s raised more than $480,000 to hold onto that seat.

While the Democratic 527s were successful in holding onto the Senate, there were two seats where investments didn’t pay off. In SD 15, which is held by incumbent Rep. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, the 527s raised at least $239,000 to support his Democratic opponent, Loveland businessman Richard Ball. Lundberg was the only Republican incumbent in the Senate targeted by the groups.

The 527s also did relatively little to hold onto the seat of Sen. Bruce Whitehead, D-Hesperus, who lost on Tuesday to Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. The 527s spent just over $45,000 on mailers and canvassing in the district. The Neighborhood Project IEC, which spent more than $500,000 on House and Senate races, put in just $3,000 for one shot at canvassing in early September and that was it. Twenty First Century Colorado spent $20,000 targeting Roberts and another $20,000 supporting Whitehead, almost all of it in September.

In the House, the Democratic 527s put the largest share of their efforts into keeping seats in House Districts 18, 27, 31, 33, 38, 47, 50 and 61. Each of those districts saw more than $100,000 in spending to retain the seats, and as of press time the efforts resulted in wins for three of the Democratic candidates but losses for the other four.

The largest amount spent, more than $250,000, went into keeping HD 61 in Democratic hands. The seat had been held by Rep. Kathleen Curry, I-Gunnison, who mounted a write-in campaign after her efforts to get on the ballot failed. As of press time, Democrat Roger Wilson of Glenwood Springs was believed to have won the seat, with 9,495 votes. Curry came in second, trailing by just over 400 votes. However, Curry has already filed a legal challenge in Denver District Court that seeks to have “undervoted” ballots counted where her name is written in but voters failed to check a box next to her name. Curry told The Statesman she did not know how many votes that could bring in, but said the number of undervoted ballots is significant, at last estimate about 1,949.

Curry said her poll watchers had told her they saw lots of ballots where the box wasn’t checked but her name had been written in, and in some ballots the name was written in the wrong place. Curry said of the latter there were at least 25 ballots in Garfield County, 15 in Eagle County and 69 in Gunnison County. For the former, Curry said at least 100 ballots in Pitkin County did not have the box checked. “We will definitely pursue getting all the ballots counted and the clerks are aware of this,” she said.

On Friday, Judge John Madden IV ruled in Curry’s favor, ordering county clerks to count write-in votes listed on the HD 61 portion of the ballots.

The Democratic 527s also put in more than $236,000 to keep the seat of HD 50’s Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, all of it in radio and TV buys. In HD 18, which was held by term-limited Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, the 527s put more than $219,000 targeting the race between Rep.-elect Pete Lee and his Republican opponent, Karen Cullen. In total, the 527s put money into 18 House seats, and Democrats won 12 of them.

Most notable among the losses: more than $202,000 spent to keep the HD 33 seat of Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, who as of press time trails her Republican opponent, Donald Beezley, by around 400 votes. Rep. Sara Gagliardi, D-Arvada, who lost to Rep.-elect Libby Szabo, was supported by at least $182,000 from the 527s; Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton and Rep.-elect Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, were targeted by more than $112,00, most of it pro-Rice. In the House, Rep. Brian Del Grosso R-Loveland, was the only House incumbent targeted by the Democratic 527s, but they spent only about $9,000 on the race.

The 527s also put last-minute money into several races that had previously been seen as safe Democratic pickups: HD 3, won by incumbent Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Englewood; and HD 26, held by House Asst. Majority Leader Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood. In Kerr’s district, the 527s spent $17,000 in mid-October, exclusively on attack ads on his Republican opponent, Mark Barrington. In HD 3, the 527s spent $12,000 between Oct. 20 and Oct. 25 on ads supporting Kagan.

Legislators told The Statesman Tuesday night they were frustrated with the amount of spending and advertising done by the 527s. The advertising “takes away from the message” of the candidates, Speaker Terrance Carroll said, especially with the negative advertising, and voters blame the candidates for it, even though by law the 527s are prohibited from coordinating with candidates or their campaigns. “527s have become shadow campaigns,” Carroll said. The solution, he said, may be to raise contribution limits for the candidates and increase transparency, such as requiring 527s to report their expenditures when they are spent, rather than allowing for lag time that results in much of the spending being disclosed after the election. Carroll said he hoped the next legislature would work on the issue. The system as it exists now, “brings discredit to the process.”

Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, said she believes in public financing of elections, rather than having “total strangers” impacting the race. “Whose free speech is it?” she asked. “The candidates? The party?” Court said she did not think the framers of the Constitution had the 527s in mind when they came up with the First Amendment. “What is the essence of political speech in a democracy?” Court asked, adding that public financing of elections would allow candidates to once again own their messages.

But some legislators said that while they might not like it, in the end the outside committees do help them win races.

Shaffer said ultimately, the 527s do help win elections and they provide a strong media presence. Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, attributed the Republicans takeover of the House on Wednesday to the impact of the 527s. “We won” with them, she told The Statesman.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com