Apr 20, 2023 - News

Denver's public campaign financing propped up weak candidates

Data: Denver Elections Division. Table: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Denver gave more than $1.7 million in taxpayer money to candidates who had no chance of winning their respective races in this month's municipal election.

State of play: The bulk of it — $1.4 million — went to nine mayoral candidates who each failed to reach 5% of the vote, an Axios Denver analysis finds.

  • An additional $361,000 landed in the coffers of six city council candidates who finished far behind the winners and received about 10% support or less.

Why it matters: The April 4 election served as the inaugural test for the city's new public campaign financing — an $8 million, voter-approved program designed to minimize the impact of big-dollar donors in local politics and level the playing fields.

Yes, but: In all but one race, the candidates who raised the most money from individual contributors won or advanced to the June runoff.

  • The exception was the at-large city council race, but the second-highest fundraiser did win a seat.

Between the lines: Millions in "Fair Elections Fund" dollars supported mayoral candidates who were backed by super PACs and wealthy donors.

  • Moreover, incumbents with no legitimate challenger took huge sums, and $188,000 went to a candidate who dropped out of the mayor's race weeks before the vote.

Of note: The candidates who received public dollars must track their spending and refund any unspent portion. But there are few limits on how they can spend the money.

  • So far, five candidates have returned a total of $188,000, Denver election officials tell us.

What they're saying: "It's too bad that some of those races did go to the top money raisers," said Owen Perkins at CleanSlateNow Action, an organization that supported the public financing program. "That is going to lead people and future candidates to think that money is the be-all and end-all, and that's too bad."

  • Still, he considers it a success because it led to a larger candidate field and "many great choices" for mayor. "I thought it achieved the goals we set to make access to the ballot more equitable," he said in an interview.

Be smart: The fund allows candidates to seek matching dollars for donations of $50 or less at a ratio of 9 to 1.

  • That means a candidate who gets a $50 contribution qualifies for $450 in public money. To participate, the candidates must agree to cap individual donations at $500, instead of the typical $1,000.

Zoom in: Council member Kevin Flynn initially opposed public financing and believes it attracted people to run for mayor who "had no realistic path" to win.

  • Flynn took the maximum $125,000 public match and easily won. It amounted to 74% of all campaign money he received.
  • He told us the public money — along with connections made in prior elections — allowed him to spend less time fundraising.

The other side: Andy Rougeot, who self-funded his mayoral bid with $850,000, criticized his rivals for using the public financing system during the campaign, saying it was "ridiculous to see our taxpayer dollars going to this."

  • He finished fourth with 11.5% of the vote.

What to watch: The candidates who received public financing and advanced to the June 6 runoff will get more money as early as this week — a lump sum payment equal to 25% of all their qualifying contributions.


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