Polling has shown none of the 17 candidates for mayor breaking away from the pack with voters, but the latest campaign finance reports show a handful of hopefuls creating space when it comes to fundraising — and outside support.
Ballots are hitting Denver voters’ mailboxes this week for the April 4 municipal election. Two would-be mayors in particular, Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston, are significantly ahead of the field when it comes to total money backing their campaigns, at $1.71 million and $1.66 million, respectively. That’s thanks in large part to big donations pouring into independent expenditure committees that aren’t subject to city contribution limits.
Leslie Herod is in the hunt in terms of direct contributions but lags the two in outside spending.
Will that money make a difference as Brough, Herod and Johnston vie to make it into the June 6 runoff? That’s not a guarantee, longtime Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann said.
“My take is that the money is important. You’d much rather have it than not have it,” Sondermann said. But, in Denver mayoral races, “it is less definitive than in some other elections.”
As of the latest filings on the city’s campaign finance website, due last week, Brough is leading all mayoral candidates in direct fundraising during the campaign at $1.1 million, followed by Herod at about $756,600 and Johnston at about $728,200. Those totals include small-donation matches from the Fair Elections Fund. [
The top three didn’t maintain the same fundraising pace in February. Brough took in more than $163,000 in contributions during the month, while Johnston raised nearly $161,000. Herod, a state representative, raised just $55,000.
Brough and Johnston really pull ahead when it comes to independent spending on their behalf, with more than $930,000 spent backing Johnston, a former state senator, and more than $560,000 for Brough, the former leader of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Andy Rougeot, a former small business owner and Army veteran, is self-financing his campaign and isn’t taking city matching funds. He has collected $47,858 in cash and in-kind contributions from donors overall and has loaned his campaign $750,000, for a fundraising total of $797,858.
Beyond those top four, there is another drop-off before fifth place in terms of total fundraising — state Sen. Chris Hansen, with $443,012 so far, per the city’s website. City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega is sixth, with $322,727.
After that, the other eleven candidates in the race — Kwame Spearman, Lisa Calderón, Ean Thomas Tafoya, Trinidad Rodriguez, Thomas Wolf, Terrance Roberts, Jim Walsh, Aurelio Martinez, Al Gardner, Renate Behrens and Robert Treta — have combined to raise just over $1 million.
The 2023 race is unique in Denver history because of the Fair Elections Fund, a voter-approved program that provides public matching funds to candidates that agree to lower contribution limits ($500 in the mayor’s race, instead of the regular $1,000). The program matches donations of up to $50 from Denver voters on a 9-to-1 basis. Only Behrens, Gardner, Rougeot and Gardner are not receiving public money in this election.
With one more disbursement to campaigns coming from that fund next week, Brough has collected the most public matching funds, at more than $530,000. Herod is second at more than $441,000 and Hansen third at nearly $256,000.
Johnston, who most recently was the president and CEO of the major philanthropic foundation Gary Community Ventures, is fourth in Fair Election Fund money at $253,000.
Independent expenditures have taken off in recent weeks, largely paying for supportive TV ads and mailers.
The “Advancing Denver” committee backing Johnston has reported spending nearly $932,000 and counting. Its money has come from figures in the business, investment and philanthropic worlds, including a contribution of $299,804 from Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn; more than $250,000 from hedge fund manager Steve Mandel; and $150,000 from Kent Thiry, the politically active former CEO of Denver-based dialysis provider DaVita.
Brough, also a former chief of staff to then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, has a potent independent expenditure committee supporting her. Called “A Better Denver,” it has raised $563,135 from business, development and real estate interests, including $150,000 from the National Association of Realtors Fund.
Also supported by six-figure outside spending are Herod ($122,350) and Ortega ($130,397).
Independent expenditure committees are not subject to city campaign finance laws and are not allowed to coordinate with the campaign of the candidates they are supporting. They also can oppose candidates. And some have not disclosed their donors, including the Herod-backing “Ready Denver.”
In other high-profile elections, say for governor or U.S. Senate, money is everything, Sondermann said. But in past mayoral elections in Denver, that hasn’t always proven to be so.
“Federico Peña was not the big-money candidate. Wellington Webb was anything but. Hickenlooper was not the establishment candidate when he started, and ditto for Michael Hancock,” he said, listing the city’s last four elected mayors.
With 58% of Denver voters undecided in the race, according to a poll of 594 likely voters conducted by SurveyUSA at the end of February, the race could still go any way. Candidates are looking for avenues to break through and connect with voters.
“I’d rather have the money. I’d rather have the TV time. I’d rather have the direct mail and online advertising and everything money buys you than not have it,” Sondermann said, “but there has not historically been a one-to-one correlation” of money to votes earned.
The committee supporting Johnston has already reported spending $860,000 on media buys, and the committee backing Brough has reported spending nearly $509,000 on ads.
Staff writer Jon Murray contributed to this story.
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