Denver mayor’s race: Mike Johnston, Kelly Brough see $5.5 million in outside money

The outside spending group backing Mike Johnston for Denver mayor is blowing by Kelly Brough in the runoff race for the city’s top office thanks, in part, to half a million dollars from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Advancing Denver, the independent expenditure committee working to elect Johnston, has now spent north of $4.15 million to forward its cause, according to campaign finance filings kept by the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office. That included more than $676,000 spent on media buys on May 22 alone.

That spending eclipses the combined total fundraising — also including direct contributions and matching, public Fair Elections Fund dollars — brought in by Brough, who was second-best funded candidate in the city’s broad mayoral field going into the general election on April 4.

That’s not to say the independent expenditure committee backing Brough isn’t bringing in plenty of cash. A Better Denver, as the Brough-backing group is called, has so far reported close to $1.44 million in spending on the race including a $169,000 media buy this week.

That committee has been fueled in part by $50,000 from Pete Coors last month, the namesake heir to the Coors brewing empire and a former Republican Senate candidate.

The biggest donors to the Advancing Denver committee backing Johnston have been LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman at nearly $1.36 million, Bloomberg at $500,000 and former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry at $450,000.

Coors and Denver-based developer Lloyd “Cal” Fulenwider have each given $50,000 to the committee backing Brough, but A Better Denver’s biggest contributors are trade groups. The National Association of Realtors Fund has given more than $471,000 and the Colorado Construction Industry Coalition has given $61,000.

It’s possible donors like Bloomberg, Hoffman and Coors have given more than has been disclosed so far. The committees are only obligated to disclose contributions when recording expenditures. The committees aren’t subject to Denver’s contribution limits for mayoral candidates (a maximum of $500 for Fair Elections Fund candidates) and are barred from coordinating with the candidates’ campaigns.

The Brough campaign on Wednesday touted a new ad — paid for with direct campaign funds — that seeks to differentiate her from Johnston because of the gobs of out-of-state money supporting his campaign. The ad identifies Hoffman (who lives in California) and Bloomberg (who lives in New York) and the more than $1.8 million they have donated specifically.

“Maybe these guys think Denver is for sale,” the TV spot says of those donors.

The Johnston campaign has pointed out that aside from Pete Coors, A Better Denver has also received a $10,000 donation this month from conservative Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. The Denver County Republican Party has endorsed Brough, while progressive candidates who lost in the first round of the mayor’s race, including Leslie Herod, Ean Thomas Tafoya and Lisa Calderón, have endorsed Johnston in a city that is decidedly liberal.

In Wednesday’s news release, the Brough campaign highlighted Bloomberg’s record of supporting conservative candidates as well as liberals.

Both candidates talked about the outside money supporting them when interviewed by talk show host Aaron Harber in April for his program on Rocky Mountain PBS.

Johnston pointed to his record of “building broad coalitions” to achieve progressive goals as a rationale for why a billionaire like Reid Hoffman might want to give a million dollars or more to support his candidacy. He also argued that support from outside the city presented less of a risk of conflict of interest as opposed to contributions from people who might have business in Denver itself.

“People are looking for where are there real progressive leaders who are going to take swings at the biggest, hardest problems and can deliver results,” Johnston said. “Those are also people who don’t have any stakes in front of the city and county of Denver. I think that’s a real difference between Kelly’s outside support and mine.”

Brough lamented the lack of control candidates have over the actions taken by independent expenditure committees. But she defended having an independent expenditure committee that is largely fed by local donors.

These are “people who have made investments, yes in businesses, but also this is their home,’” she said. “This is where their kids go to school and where they’re raising their families. This is where they have employees who live in our city and they care deeply about the future of this city.”

Tafoya has endorsed Johnston but this week he talked about what he sees as a pressing need to reform independent expenditure committees in Denver elections going forward. Federal precedent would stand in the way of banning outside spending entirely, but Tafoya, who raised just over $207,000 in his mayoral campaign with no outside spending, said he hopes to work with the City Council or Denver voters directly on reforms that would make the committees more transparent.

Staff writer Jon Murray contributed to this report.

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