Steyer-Backed Candidates in Colorado Challenge Republican Majority in State Senate

GOP has had narrow one vote majority in Senate, Dems hold lower chamber

Tom Steyer / Getty Images

Two Democratic candidates for Colorado state senate seats who have received donations from California political activist Tom Steyer have significant "cash on hand" advantages over their Republican opponents, causing Republican analysts to cast doubt on the party's ability to maintain control of the legislative body.

A narrow one-seat majority by Republicans in the state's legislative upper chamber is all that has kept Democrats in the state from controlling all three key levers of government since 2015. However, donations in late 2017 by Steyer to two Democratic challengers may have been a signal to others of which seats activists and out-of-state interests are hoping can be stolen away from Republicans this November.

Democratic challenger Faith Winter leads Republican incumbent Beth Martinez Humenik in cash on hand by about $143,000 to $34,000, a 4-1 advantage. Elsewhere, Democratic challenger Tammy Story leads Republican Tim Neville in cash on hand by $148,000 to $104,000, or a lead of roughly 40 percent.

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"As concerning as those numbers look, both of those candidates will benefit from independent expenditures, I'm sure," said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP. "But that gap needs to be closed as much as possible going into the fall campaign."

Steyer's donations to Winter and Story are far from what has tipped the tables in their favor, as the two donations by Steyer were only for $200. Even though he did not max out on his contribution, some believe it's an indication more out-of-state money will eventually find its way to these two races.

"As always, Democrats have successfully pumped in a considerable sum of out-of-state and special interest dollars into contested Colorado legislative races," said Ryan Lynch, spokesperson for Martinez Humenik. "[She] understands that Adams County voters cannot be bought and is taking her record of success and her bold vision for Colorado directly to front doors throughout her District."

Others say the candidates have a track record of winning even when they've been outspent.

"It's pretty simple, our focus is on raising what we need to win our race," Neville told the Washington Free Beacon. "We've been outspent before. We always have concerns on making sure we have what we need, but I don't spend a tremendous amount of time focusing on what the other people are doing. We know there are a lot of liberal billionaires who are willing to spend a lot of money to reshape it."

Daniel Cole, communications director with the Colorado GOP, also believes fundraising may not tell the whole story.

"These races could easily make or break our Senate majority," Cole began. "I don't want to downplay the challenges, but the hard-dollar disparity doesn't mean much. In 2014, Neville and Martinez Humenik were outraised 2-1 and 7-1 in the same districts, but they won. So far this cycle, the fundraising ratios are significantly better. Of course Steyer poses a threat. Presumably he'll pump a lot more money into those races than will show up on Tracer [campaign finance reports]. But we'll gladly put our policies, our systems, and our candidates up against his cash."

The 2014 election in Colorado generally leaned Republican.

Although voters gave another term to incumbent Democratic governor John Hickenlooper, they replaced Sen. Mark Udall (D.) with Republican Cory Gardner. Republicans also won the three key statewide offices of attorney general, treasurer, and secretary of state. And the GOP was able to turn out roughly 110,000 more voters, even though the party overall only had about 55,000 more registered Republicans versus Democrats that year, according to data from the secretary of state's website.

Wadhams said 2018 will be more challenging for Republicans, despite good trends in terms of President Trump's favorability numbers and also Republicans faring better on the generic ballot.

"Daniel [Cole] makes a good point that they've won under similar financial disparities, but they still need to close as much of that [fundraising] gap as much as they can."

Wadhams also pointed out that two other senate seats will be closely contested, but they are receiving less national attention because they are open races.

Requests for comment from Steyer's PAC NextGen America were not returned, and neither of the Democratic candidates in this article returned requests for comment.

Because state senate terms in Colorado run for four years, the races will likely also interest the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a project by Eric Holder aimed at undoing what they see as years' worth of Democratic losses due to gerrymandering.

The NDRC has listed Colorado as a "target state" in which it hopes to have Democratic majorities in the state house and senate when congressional and state districts are redrawn after the 2020 census, even though Democrats were not shut out of redistricting and reapportionment after 2010.

Current data, however, does not show that the NDRC has donated in this cycle to any candidates, PACs, or independent expenditure committees.