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Democrats’ Success in Colorado Fueled by 4

The resurgence of the Democratic Party in Colorado — the impetus for bringing the Democratic National Convention to Denver in the first place — is due largely to the largess of four multimillionaires, and to a small degree, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Before Colorado Democrats flipped a Senate seat and the GOP-leaning 3rd district in 2004; before they stole the governorship and the 7th district in 2006; before they appeared well-positioned to flip the solidly conservative 4th district this year, überwealthy Coloradoans Rutt Bridges, Tim Gill, Jared Polis and Pat Stryker plunked down millions of dollars of their own money to attack Republican incumbents and finance the state Democratic Party and its candidates up and down the ballot.

They did it mostly using 527s, a loophole of campaign-finance law and a popular vehicle for influencing politics that came to the fore after the McCain-sponsored Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passed the Congress and was signed by President Bush in 2002.

With Polis winning a heated battle for the Democratic nomination in the Boulder-area 2nd district earlier this month — he spent more than $5 million of his own money on the race — the wealthy Democratic foursome might now be reduced to a troika moving forward.

Colorado Democratic delegates who were enjoying the festivities on the convention floor Tuesday evening from their prime spot near center stage said they wouldn’t be sitting where they were without the efforts of Bridges, Gill, Polis and Stryker.

“The fact of the matter is, the more dollars that are out there that can get the message out, it has to have an effect,” Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak said.

“I see the visible effect of what they’re doing in different races across the state. And while there’s a part of me that would like to coordinate everything that’s going on, I can’t do that in this state. So, I’m appreciative of the fact that they’re like this other entity out there that is helping us get a message out.”

Delegate Stan Matsunaka, a Loveland attorney, was a state Senator in 2002 when he lost to now-Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) in the race for the open 4th district.

Matsunaka said his chances of winning would have been unquestionably higher had he run in 2006 or this year. The 527s financed by Bridges, Gill, Polis and Stryker have focused in particular on attacking Musgrave, whom they dislike for her opposition to same-sex marriage.

Gill and Polis are both gay, and along with Bridges and Stryker, the four of them targeted Musgrave beginning in the 2004 election cycle, after the Congresswoman became the lead sponsor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Musgrave’s campaign estimates that nearly $10 million in ads have been run against Musgrave since then.

“Having additional resources to get the message out, where typically in Colorado [Democrats] have always been underfunded — outspent 2-1 — we can now go toe to toe, dollar for dollar, and that makes a big difference,” Matsunaka said.

Democrats credit their television ads against Musgrave in the 2004 and 2006 cycles with raising the Congresswoman’s negatives. According to an Aug. 22-24 automated Roll Call poll, Musgrave’s favorable/unfavorable ratings are upside down, with 31 percent of voters holding a favorable view of her job performance and 51 percent unfavorable. Former Senate aide Betsy Markey (D) led Musgrave in that survey, 50 percent to 43 percent.

In an interview Wednesday, Polis, a former president of the Colorado Board of Education, recalled that he and his wealthy activist colleagues thought success was possible, just not so fast. Polis said the group’s goal was not just to pour money into influencing elections, but to help the Democratic Party “institutionalize” political gains to build a lasting majority.

“It starts with good candidates and several missteps by Colorado Republicans. That provided an opening for the Democrats to get our message out,” Polis said. “All money does is help get that message out. Obviously, people have to buy into it by voting.”

With his move to Congress all but assured in the general election, Polis is shifting his focus from state politics, and now has his sights set on helping Democrats expand their majority in the House. When asked, Polis declined to comment on whether he has any interest in leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the future, saying it was “a little too early for that.”

Polis is running in the overwhelmingly Democratic, Boulder-area 2nd district. He is set to succeed Rep. Mark Udall (D), who is running for Senate.

“My focus is more on the federal level and increasing our Democratic majorities in Congress. I look forward to working with the DCCC to do that,” Polis said. Polis did not directly address what role his personal bank account might play in his new political endeavor.

In addition to gains at the federal level — many Democratic insiders in Colorado give them heavy credit for Salazar’s 2004 Senate victory — Bridges, Gill, Polis and Stryker have helped Democrats expand locally.

In 2006, Democrats won control of both chambers of the state Legislature. Waak said they now hope to win the secretary of state’s office.

Secretary of State Mike Coffman won the GOP nomination in the open 6th district, giving Ritter an opportunity to appoint a Democrat to replace him and giving the Democrats a head start in advance of the 2010 election for that office. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) is retiring from the 6th district.

Following Coffman’s resignation after what is expected to be an easy victory for him in his solidly conservative district, the only statewide constitutional office the Republicans will control will be that of attorney general.

In describing how Bridges, Gill, Polis and Stryker operated over the past few cycles, Waak emphasized that their participation involved more than simply writing checks to finance advertising. She complimented the group for using polling data, meeting with candidates, and doing their homework as they decided where to get involved, and what their activities should entail.

Bridges briefly ran for the Senate in 2004 and for governor in 2006 but abandoned both bids.

Mike Stratton, a Democratic consultant based in Colorado and Udall’s chief consultant for his Senate race, said this group of activist donors have become key figures in Democratic politics in the Centennial State.

He said candidates thinking of running on the Democratic ticket, whether for state, local or federal office, now court their support just as they do that of organized labor, the environmental community, or any other member of the Democratic governing coalition.

What motivates them when it comes to policy, Stratton said, is abortion rights, equal rights for gays and lesbians, and a concern for the environment. They have even supported a few Republicans at the state legislative level who are on their side of these key issues, Stratton said.

“They absolutely have made a seat at the table for themselves that is very powerful,” he said. “They’ve been a real force.”

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