The Democratic Party’s top donors are pouring money into Colorado political groups, drawing attention to state legislative contests and ballot fights that could affect the redrawing of key congressional districts, public records show.
Billionaire hedge fund managers George Soros and Tom Steyer are steering money to Colorado state senate candidates, while the Democracy Alliance, a leading left-wing donor club created ten years ago by four wealthy Colorado Democrats, provides financing for an interconnected network of Democrat-aligned political groups.
Campaign finance data reveals how the Alliance and its top donors are implementing a strategy conceived last year to retake power at the state level from Republicans, who have dominated state legislative and gubernatorial contests during the Obama presidency.
The Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Colorado state senate: The GOP currently controls 18 seats to the Democrats’ 17, making donations to the campaigns of state senate candidates "a very efficient [way] to invest money if you want to change public policy," according to Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli.
Soros is the latest Democratic mega-donor to throw his weight behind efforts to seize control of the chamber. Colorado campaign finance records show the Hungarian-born billionaire donated in June to three state senate candidates as well as one incumbent and one candidate for the state’s House of Representatives, where Democrats currently hold a three-seat majority.
Steyer donated to all five of the same campaigns earlier in the month, according to campaign finance records. His wife Kat Taylor donated the same sums to the same campaigns on the same days. The contributions from Steyer and Soros were first reported by Complete Colorado columnist Simon Lomax.
Representatives for Steyer and Soros did not respond to requests for comment. The campaigns they are supporting also did not respond to questions.
Steyer’s federal political operation has also focused intently on Colorado. It has spent nearly $2.5 million in the state, including more than $900,000 for polling and research services from the Denver firm Project New America—"an extraordinary amount of money," Ciruli told Lomax.
Steyer’s presence in the state was unsurprising to political observers, Ciruli said in an interview. However, "when Soros showed up, we began shaking our heads" and thinking "there’s something going on."
Former state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger is one of the candidates who has received money from both Steyer and Soros. She is running for the seat she held until 2015, when Republican Laura Woods unseated her by just 663 votes.
Colorado residents began receiving political mailers attacking Woods from a group called Fairness for Colorado late last year. One mailer said she "opposes increasing the wages for a quarter-million Coloradans, but voted to raise her own pay." Another said Woods "voted to protect huge tax giveaways for the wealthy and big corporations."
Money for those ads and extensive political efforts by other groups in the state can be traced back to the Democracy Alliance, a secretive network of left-wing donors that includes Soros and Steyer.
The Alliance’s left-wing donors, which include individuals, foundations, and labor unions, contribute at least $200,000 to its portfolio of roughly 30 organizations every year. Many contribute far more.
Alliance president Gara LaMarche did not respond to questions about its work in Colorado.
That work harkens back to the Alliance’s formation in Colorado in 2006 as part of a political strategy dubbed "the Blueprint" by journalist Adam Schrager and former Colorado state Rep. Rob Witwer in a book by that title. With massive amounts of money from wealthy donors, the Alliance and Colorado Democrats "rearranged the politics of this state from 2006 on," Ciruli said.
When the Alliance gathered for one of its biannual donor conferences last year, it rolled out a new initiative focused on retaking power at the state level. "States are increasingly the sites of our most important political and policy battles," internal Alliance documents explained. "We need a broad coalition with strong community roots to engage successfully in these battles."
The Alliance established a series of funds to coordinate efforts among its partners and portfolio groups. The State Engagement Initiative, one of the funds, "provides critical national resources to well-planned, integrated and primarily state-funded efforts to promote a progressive agenda in legislatures and other statewide offices, to impact redistricting in 2020 and gain control of Congress for the next decade."
The SEI’s advisory board includes a representative from Soros’s Open Society Foundation. An employee of Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action advises a separate Alliance fund focused on state-level environmental policy.
Internal documents listed Colorado as one of the SEI’s target states to win "progressive majorities that can pass exemplary policies that make systemic change in favor of progressives." Retaking the Colorado state senate would remove the last significant obstacle to that agenda, and public records show the Alliance has been working to make that happen.
America Votes, its foremost grassroots organizing group, has provided cash infusions to a handful of political groups in Colorado, some of which have passed money amongst themselves, and many of which share staff and mailing addresses.
America Votes has donated this cycle to five Colorado groups that list the same "designated agent": Kentucky resident Julie Wells, who has served as the face of dozens of liberal groups in Colorado since 2006.
Wells, the only listed contact for many of the Alliance-backed groups, did not respond to questions about her involvement with the groups or the relationships between them.
Fairness for Colorado, the group attacking Woods, has reported $315,000 in income during the 2016 election cycle. More than 60 percent of those funds have come from two sources: America Votes, which has given $140,000, and Democracy Alliance partner Tim Gill, who has donated another $50,000. Gill was instrumental in the Colorado strategy that birthed the Alliance.
Documents on file with the Colorado secretary of state listed Jim Alexee as the registered agent of Fairness for Colorado until November of last year. That same month, Alexee left NGP VAN, a premier Democratic campaign vendor.
Alexee had previously worked for Project New America, the Denver firm that NextGen Climate Action, one of Steyer’s super PACs, has paid more than $930,000 since last year for polling and research services. Project New America was the recipient of about 40 percent of the money that Steyer-backed groups have paid to vendors in the state this cycle.
Alexee had also been listed as the registered agent for Coloradans Creating Opportunities, a group that received $80,000 last month from America Votes and its political arm, the America Votes Action Fund.
When Alexee left CCO, the group began listing Ashley Stevens as its registered agent. Fairness for Colorado listed its new agent as Sara Stevens. Both, in fact, referred to Sara Ashley Stevens, who has owned the property listed by both groups as their physical address since 2012.
Stevens was an aide to former Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.), who was unseated in 2014 despite extensive financial support from Steyer and NextGen. Her LinkedIn profile now lists her employer as Mainstream Colorado, a Democrat-aligned political group that has been dormant since last year.
In January 2015, Mainstream Colorado zeroed out its bank account with a $44,704.61 payment to the Colorado Citizens’ Alliance, a group currently running attack ads against Republican state senate candidate Nancy Doty, whose Democratic opponent received contributions from Soros and Steyer.
Both groups donated identical amounts on the same day to another Colorado political group that lists Stevens as its registered agent. That group, Common Sense Values, has donated to Fairness for Colorado and to yet another political outfit that employs Stevens: Concerned Citizens for Aurora Families.
Concerned Citizens appears to be a direct subsidiary of Common Sense Values, which is listed as the group’s "true name" in its incorporation documents. The group’s only reported income to date has come from Common Sense Values.
Concerned Citizens spent about $13,000 in a successful effort to defeat Aurora school board member Eric Nelson’s bid for the Democratic nomination for a Colorado state house seat.
If the Alliance succeeds in capturing legislative control of Colorado, Ciruli said its approach can be exported to other states.
"If you can turn this model, which has already been created and defined, and invigorate it with some additional money, I think it makes it all the more powerful to take it around to the Arizonas, to the Nevadas, to any other state … and really move the progressive agenda," he said.
In addition to its legislative work, the Alliance is backing a political group that seeks to affect Colorado’s congressional redistricting process.
America Votes steered $15,000 to the group, Your Vote Counts, in late May, though the contributions were not reported until June, resulting in a $1,200 fine that was later reduced to $50. America Votes donated another $65,000 last month.
Your Vote Counts initially worked to defeat two ballot measures that would have shifted control over redistricting from the state legislature to an independent commission. A state judge tossed the ballot initiatives last month, ruling that they violated rules restricting ballot measures to a single statutory purpose.
The group is now working to pass a separate ballot initiative that would tweak the body in charge of redistricting.
At least one state senator has directly benefitted from the Alliance’s support for Your Vote Counts. On the same day that America Votes contributed its initial $15,000, Your Vote Counts reported paying $6,125 to Democratic state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri for "consultant and professional services."
Update: After publication, Alliance president Gara LaMarche said in email that his group is not "so much ‘returning' to Colorado—it has always had one of the most savvy and active donor tables, which has been a model for many others—as that when last year we picked a dozen key states to work in between now and 2020, Colorado was on that list."