In 2004, Colorado was a solidly Republican state: the governor, both U.S. Senators, and five of seven House members belonged to the GOP, and President George W. Bush won the state’s nine electoral votes. By the end of the 2008 elections, everything had reversed: the governor, both U.S. Senators, and five of seven House members were Democrats, and Barack Obama carried the state. National political trends explained some of this transformation. The rest was the work of four liberal philanthropists who set out to remake Colorado through a mix of public-policy giving and campaign donations—software entrepreneur Tim Gill, venture capitalist Rutt Bridges, Internet businessman Jared Polis, and heiress Pat Stryker.
In 1999, Bridges founded the Bighorn Center for Public Policy, a think tank that swiftly altered state campaign-finance rules. The liberal Bell Policy Center was established immediately after. Then came a Colorado version of the national MoveOn.org pressure group, called ProgressNowAction.org. Colorado Media Matters was created in 2006 to influence state reporters and editorial writers. A litigation group, Colorado Ethics Watch, was set up the same year, along with an online newspaper called the Colorado Independent and several blogs like ColoradoPols.com and SquareState.net, all oriented to promoting progressive policies and investigating and criticizing opponents. A new academy to train liberal activists, the Center for Progressive Leadership Colorado, was also funded.
The Denver Post characterized the mechanics of the nonprofits set up by the “Four Millionaires” and their allies this way:
A liberal group with a nonpartisan name like Colorado First puts out a list of polluters and demands official action. A Republican running for Colorado office is on the list. Paid liberal bloggers chatter. An online liberal publication with a newspaper-like name writes an article about the candidate and his company polluting Colorado’s streams. A liberal advocacy group puts out a news release, citing the group and the pollution, which sound reputable to an ordinary voter. They mass e-mail the release and attach a catchy phrase to it like “Dirty Doug.” At some point, the mainstream media checks out the allegations.
In the 2004, 2006, and 2008 elections, the Four Millionaires spent more than $20 million trying to tip Colorado from Republican to Democrat via a mix of political attack ads during election season and long-term funding for what political analyst Fred Barnes described as “a vast infrastructure of liberal organizations that produces an anti-Republican, anti-conservative echo chamber in politics and the media.” They were wildly successful: After 2008, Democrats controlled not only all of the national offices described in the first paragraph above, but also the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature. By 2012, according to the Denver Post, liberal Super PAC contributions exceeded conservative ones at a rate of 150:1.
Observing this triumph—which became known as the Colorado Model—other donors launched or intensified similar efforts in other “purple” swing states. The Coors Foundation also worked to help Colorado conservatives learn from the progressives’ success, and in the deep-red 2014 election, Republicans finally reclaimed one of the two U.S. Senate seats in Colorado. But the other Senate seat and three of the seven House seats remained with Democrats. The incumbent Democrat governor won a tight re-election. Republicans narrowly took control of the state Senate, and they pared down Democrat control of the state Assembly from 37-28 to 34-31. Colorado was purple again. But the Gill/Bridges/Polis/Stryker nonprofit infrastructure remains in place.
- Rob Witwer and Adam Schrager, The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado (Speaker’s Corner, 2010)
- Denver Post analysis, denverpost.com/ci_20148556/spending-by-super-pacs-colorado-is-dominion-democrats
- Fred Barnes analysis, weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/316nfdzw.asp