Two Republican candidates have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Colorado’s 20-year-old campaign donation limits.
Gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez and State Senate candidate Rod Pelton of Cheyenne Wells, along with former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House, are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the office of the Secretary of State. They are supported in the case by the lawyers of two conservative non-profit associations.
They are seeking a preliminary injunction to restrain the state from imposing candidate donation limits in the 2022 election. A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday.
Lopez, Pelton and House are represented by attorneys for Advance Colorado and the National Institute for Free Speech, two conservative nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors.
The Secretary of State’s office is fighting the lawsuit.
“The people of Colorado have made it clear time and time again that they don’t want it, having repeatedly enacted and re-enacted contribution limits both by popular initiative and through the legislative process,” said one. brief filed by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which represents Secretary of State Jena Griswold, Democrat, in the case. “It would be a massive disruption of the status quo that has prevailed in Colorado for the past half century.”
Nearly 67% of Colorado voters approved Initiative 27 in 2002, which limited the amount of money individual donors could give to campaigns with increases allowed for inflation. This year, individual donors can give a maximum $400 to state legislative candidates and $1,250 to candidates for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, or treasurer.
The Republicans’ federal lawsuit argues that the limits are outdated and far too low.
“A lot has changed since 2002, when Colorado adopted its current system of contribution caps,” the lawsuit begins. “America has seen three new presidents. Eminem, Ashanti and Nelly no longer dominate the pop charts. Gasoline no longer costs $1.14 a gallon. Smartphones were invented and have become ubiquitous. But Colorado is clinging to already unconstitutionally low candidate contribution limits.
Colorado advanced attorney Dan Burrows cited the more than $23 million Democratic Gov. Jared Polis spent on his 2018 campaign.
“The end result is that instead of opening offices to people who have small but passionate grassroots support, it limits offices to wealthy freelancers,” Burrows said. “It gave power to self-financiers. The donations that went to the candidates, over which the candidates had control, instead went to independent spending.
Common Cause Colorado and the Campaign Legal Center are also fighting against the lawsuit. Both groups are non-profit, which means they are not required to disclose their donors.
Sign up here to get The Unaffiliatedour bi-weekly newsletter on Colorado politics and politics.
Each edition is packed with exclusive news, analysis and other behind-the-scenes information you won’t find anywhere else. Subscribe today to see what all the buzz is about.
Cameron Hill, associate director of Colorado Common Cause, said dropping campaign contribution limits in Colorado at this point would create “a toxic Old West scenario.”
“It’s an attempt to change the rules when we’re already in the middle of the game,” Hill said. “They want the rules to change despite the fact that they’ve all been through races with all these rules in place. One of them succeeded twice.
Hill was referring to Pelton, who won election and then re-election to his seat of Eastern Plains House in the current boundary. Lopez ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2018. And House spent about $110,000 on his unsuccessful 2020 campaign to represent the 6th congressional district, where individual donors are governed by federal law. and limited to a maximum of $5,600. House spent nearly $264,000 on a failed gubernatorial bid in 2014.
The lawsuit claims Colorado’s donation limits violate the First Amendment by limiting donors’ free speech. He also cites a provision in Colorado law allowing candidates who agree to voluntarily limit their spending to increase donations to double the limits.
This is a rarely used aspect of Colorado’s campaign finance law. Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl initially agreed to the limits, but later used a policy provision to back out of the pledge once another candidate entered the race.
Ganahl’s cancellation of the Jan. 31 pledge came just three days after Lopez, Pelton and House filed the federal lawsuit. And that reversal decision is cited in the motion to immediately revoke the limits, which was filed on February 7.
“Equally bad, Colorado punishes Mr. Lopez and Mr. Pelton when they refuse to limit their spending, and therefore their speech, by doubling their opponents’ contribution limits,” the motion reads. “The government’s interest in combating actual or apparent corruption cannot justify such different contribution limits.”
Chris Jackson, a Colorado attorney experienced in campaign finance laws, noted that Colorado has low contribution limits compared to other states.
“The Supreme Court has in the past struck down limits in other states for being very low,” he said. “There’s also the problem that the Supreme Court has moved a lot closer to the right.”
The United States Supreme Court in 2006 struck down Vermont’s campaign donation limits, which were lower than Colorado’s. A OpenSecrets Analysis of Campaign Boundaries in Alaska found that increasing limits benefited incumbents more than challengers.
Burrows said the goal is not to completely remove candidate donation limits. “Colorado’s boundaries are simply untenable as they are now,” he said.
The Colorado case is before U.S. District Court Senior Judge John Kane.