COLORADO — Back-to-back disasters—massive wildfires, followed by Friday morning’s horrific movie-theater massacre outside of Denver—have rocked newsrooms here, including that of the state’s flagship newspaper, the Denver Post.

The Post has done a laudable job (on multiple platforms) of covering both catastrophic events and the ensuing visits by President Obama, while also keeping an eye on the campaign trail—and, specifically, the money trail.

On July 16, with most of the major wildfires under control and Friday’s tragedy still several days off, the Post’s Kurtis Lee filed a story on second-quarter fundraising numbers for candidates in Colorado’s 3rd, 6th and 7th Congressional Districts, where two Republican incumbents and a Democratic incumbent sit on more than $1 million in campaign cash, yet to be matched by their challengers. Two days later, jumping off of the latest fundraising numbers, Lee and Sara Burnett wrote a solid overview of those three Congressional races in Colorado, considered to be among the most competitive in the nation.

Lee and Burnett explained why Democrats, who need a net gain of 25 seats to win back the majority in the 435-member House, believe Colorado is key:

Having three districts the parties consider in play makes Colorado—with its unusually high number of unaffiliated voters—one of the rare states that will be a battleground in both the presidential race and in deciding which party controls the House.

Also in the piece? A head’s up, of sorts, for Coloradans who plan to watch TV after Labor Day (and for political reporters in this state):

Already, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have reserved a combined $4 million in TV advertising space for the period starting after Labor Day….That doesn’t include buys from the candidates or other outside groups such as PACs.
The money-in-politics story, in other words, is about to get bigger and more complicated here as the campaigns enter their final months (and voters leave summer behind and begin to tune in). In anticipation of that, I offer below some modest suggestions for how reporters might write more informative campaign finance stories while becoming familiar with some of the follow-the-money resources I’ve written about before, and which they might want to call on this fall. There are stories (and seeds for future stories) to be mined from these watchdog websites.

• Report regularly not just candidate fundraising totals—which show who is “winning” and by how much, as the Post’s Lee did in the first story referenced above—but also who’s funding each major candidate, so voters get some sense of who might have a candidate’s ear. Who are a given candidate’s biggest donors? Which industries support him most heavily? Whose interests is he most attuned to? This data is, of course, available in Federal Election Commission filings but also—and, easier on the eyes—at OpenSecrets (for example, here are donors to Rep. Jared Polis, D-CO).

Another example: here is data on donors to the Colorado Congressional candidate who has raised the most money to date, incumbent Republican Mike Coffman. His $2.4 million war chest is bolstered most by contributions from retirees ($156,510), followed by Republican leadership PACs ($149,000), the oil and gas industry ($105,000), real estate interests ($86,242), and lawyers and law firms ($64,100).

Metro areas that have contributed most heavily to Coffman include Denver, $797,511; Boulder-Longmont, $29,334; Washington DC, MD, VA and WV, $20,805; Greeley, $18,400; and Los Angeles-Long Beach, $16,500.

In addition to looking at what a candidate takes in (“itemized receipts”), take a look, too, at where the money is spent (“itemized disbursements”).

Who is the Colorado candidate who has received the biggest boost this cycle from outside funds—that is, money not from the candidate’s own coffers (so, from party committees, super PACs, unions, social welfare nonprofits, and so on)? So far, according to OpenSecrets’s race-by-race outside money tracker, it is Democrat Joe Miklosi, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Mike Coffman in the newly-drawn and more Democratic 6th Congressional District, one of the state’s three battleground congressional races. Specifically, Miklosi’s campaign has received $41,015 from the Service International Employees Union, a political action committee. (Unlike super PACs, which are “independent expenditure” groups that can’t coordinate with their candidates, PACs directly fund campaigns.) The Sunlight Foundation offers similar data here.

Give readers a big-picture look. In federal races, how much and to whom have Coloradans donated? OpenSecrets supplies the Colorado data here (get data for any state or zip code here). For example, at $24.7 million as of July 24, Colorado ranks 17th among states in individual donations of $200 or more, and 52.7 percent of contributions went to Republicans.

• Dig into the above OpenSecrets data and identify for readers (or, get familiar with for future stories) Colorado’s top political donors. The top five as of the most recent filing are: Hugo Enterprises at $500,000; DISH Network at $377,096; Brownstein, Hyatt et al at $370,330; CH2M HILL at $346,015; National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. at $307,134. Who are these entities?

Until researching this article, I had never heard of Hugo Enterprises, the company topping the list above. Turns out it’s owned by conservative billionaire entrepreneur and Denver resident Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade and the nonprofit advocacy group Ending Spending (with a related super PAC), and owner of the Chicago Cubs—and a generous political contributor. In December 2011, Ricketts’s Hugo Enterprises gave $500,000 to Campaign for Primary Accountability, an anti-incumbent super PAC which had spent about $3.1 million as of June to defeat House incumbents from both parties in 2012. Ricketts made news in May when he reportedly considered bankrolling a $10 million ad campaign linking Obama to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but backed out after fierce criticism.

Clearly, Ricketts (and Hugo) are political players in Colorado and beyond, and should remain on reporters’ radars. The Denver Post’s Allison Sherry, to her credit, included Ricketts in well-reported campaign finance pieces in February (on the rise of super PACs) and in May (on Colorado’s super PAC donors, the data for which she gathered with the Sunlight Foundation).

Some other odds and ends that simply piqued my interest while I was exploring OpenSecrets and Sunlight recently, and that might lead to a story down the line:

• An invitation to a $2,500-a-head ($5,000 for PACs) fundraising weekend getaway at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen this past weekend to benefit Sen. Mark Udall, D-CO. Who attended, and what issues might they bend the senator’s ear about? How much was raised?

• Data that the University of Colorado’s lobbying expenditures were among the highest for schools in the nation last year. (It takes lobbyists to win medical research grants, apparently, and CU brings home its share.)

• A $5,000 donation to Mitt Romney by legendary Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway and his wife, Paige. Elway is not in Sheldon Adelson’s league, but the mere mention of the legendary Colorado player might attract readers who would otherwise ignore a story about politics. What other local celebrities are donors?

• Of Colorado’s 64 counties, Hinsdale County, population 946, has reported the least amount in political donations this cycle: $500. A color story on a slow day: Who’s the Hinsdale donor?

• Sen. Michael Bennet, on March 21, was recipient of a DC fundraising breakfast at The Source by Wolfgang Puck, hosted by Louis Dupart, a lobbyist who frequently fetes Colorado politicians. According to a February 2010 Sunlight Foundation article, “Dupart and his colleagues at The Normandy Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm that ranks appropriations and federal legislative issues among its specialties, have hosted or are scheduled to host at least nine fundraisers for Colorado politicians, including some who have requested earmarks for projects benefitting the firms clients.” Why is Louis Dupart so fond of Colorado lawmakers, and have they helped him with any legislation?

Such information doesn’t usually produce a page-one story—but it could. At the least, it gives readers engaging material and interesting insights into elected leaders. At best, follow-the-money stories shine a light on who’s funding our policy makers and trying to influence their votes. It’s an exercise in keeping elected leaders honest, and it’s a high, hard calling.

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.