COLORADO — As the campaign finance landscape shifts, and more cash from more sources flows into politics at every level, it becomes more important than ever that reporters follow the money. That’s just what Denver Post reporter Karen Crummy did in a story published last week.
Crummy’s article, the result of five weeks of work, documented how Colorado Democrats and their allies have taken advantage of the changing legal landscape to build a money and organizing infrastructure that helped the party to a strong performance in 2010 state legislative races, even amidst a nationwide Republican rout. Using data obtained from the Colorado Secretary of State, the article showed that most of the money that went to Democrat-friendly “super PACs” came from a small group of unions, wealthy individuals, and nonprofit advocacy groups, and that it was spent on media ads, canvassing, phone calls, and direct mailings targeting GOP opponents.
The article wasn’t—and couldn’t be—a comprehensive look at outside political spending in the state. The close analysis of the Democratic machine was possible because the party’s infrastructure channels funds through super PACs, or “independent expenditure committees,” that are allowed to make specific appeals for or against specific candidates but, under state law, must disclose both their donors and their disbursements. Other outside groups, active on behalf of both parties, refrain from direct appeals but can keep their finances opaque. The distinction probably makes the partisan gap the Post documented through this channel—the lede notes that Colorado’s Democratic super PACs outspent their Republican counterparts by “nearly 150 times” in the last election cycle—bigger than a different view would suggest.
Still, Crummy’s findings help make transparent the massive spending and organizing effort Democrats have undertaken in Colorado since 2004, when four wealthy activists formed what would become the Colorado Democratic Alliance. And her digging provides an example of the kind of detailed reporting other local reporters might emulate.
On Thursday, she spoke with CJR over the phone about her research. An edited transcript appears below.
What gave you the idea to do this story?
We all know that super PACs are the story of the year in politics. I had some time at the beginning of the year, and I just felt like looking at politics again to see if there was anything out there. I’d been looking at FollowTheMoney.org and found that what the site had done with some 527s was very interesting. So I started downloading different databases from the Colorado Secretary of State’s website, and put them into Access. I was also curious since we had this new law in 2010 requiring independent expenditure committees to disclose their expenditures.
How difficult was it to get the numbers?
It was a nightmare. You have to print out every single (independent expenditure) committee filing, and go through it by hand. You might have a committee that spent $800,000, and a lot of the money is in $200 increments spread over 20 races, and you have to add those with your little hand held calculator. There are 24 races in total across the state, so I had to add up for each committee what they spent on each race and then add all that up on both sides. It was a really time-consuming and tedious job.
We’re downloading the data onto our website, and one reason we’re doing that is because of the issues some people have had accessing the Secretary of State’s website—we think it’s a public service. We have the 2010 contributions up there, but hopefully in the next two months we’ll have up the 2010 expenditures, then the 2008 contributions and expenditures, and hopefully we’re going to be able to keep this going for the year.
What advice would you give other reporters undertaking a piece similar to yours on super PACs in their states?
Be organized and methodical. It’s hard to keep track of all the money, especially when it’s disbursed in a series of relatively small sums and spread over 20 or more races. Make your own spreadsheets—which I know can be mind-numbing—but it’s the only way to see not only patterns, but the whole picture. Plus, it makes double, triple and quadruple checking your work easier.
What kind of response have you gotten?
I’ve been eviscerated on [the left-leaning state political site] ColoradoPols.com, yesterday and Monday. I’m used to it. I used to be a political writer, but now I’m on the investigative team. ColoradoPols says my numbers are wrong—that my story doesn’t give the whole picture of campaign finances. Which is not what was I was trying to write anyway.