With ballots arriving in mailboxes this week, the four candidates in the county commissioner races say they have amassed widely different campaign fund totals.
For Democrats Jonathan Houck and Liz Smith and Republican Dave Taylor, total campaign budgets vary between roughly $10,000 and $25,000. Unaffiliated candidate Trudy Vader expects to spend far less.
Vader has trailed her incumbent opponent Houck since late summer. Houck did not begin major fundraising efforts until he was certain that the District 2 race would be contested. Vader officially became Houck’s challenger when she secured a spot on the ballot in July. Vader has not been able to close the fundraising gap since then, even though she has widespread support among residents and businesses, she said.
Vader has been candid about her campaign’s financial straits. She has publicly asked for donations to cover the costs of newspaper ads and has mulled over whether to reach into her retirement savings and an inheritance. Her campaign revenues are at about $6,000, she said Tuesday.
Vader looks to turn her election finances around by lifting a donation cap that has been a central part of her campaign. She said Tuesday that the expenditure disparity between her campaign and Houck’s, as well as Houck’s acceptance of donations from Gunnison County second-home owners, prompted her to lift her individual donation limit for county residents. She had limited all campaign contributions to $99, just below the threshold for more extensive donation reporting requirements.
“It would be much more equitable if we were running the same money,” Vader said of her contest with Houck.
Houck, on the other hand, is on track to spend less in the race than he did in his first bid for commissioner in 2012, when he ran against Republican Warren Wilcox and unaffiliated candidate Polly Oberosler. Houck spent about $16,000 in 2012 and won the election by a margin of 23%.
“About $14,000 is what this race will cost,” Houck said Monday.
Unlike the other three candidates, Houck has not dipped into his personal bank accounts this election. Donations from individuals have made up most of the $11,000 Houck has raised to fund his campaign, he said.
One of those individual donors was Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet. Bennet on Sunday gave the maximum that a person is allowed to donate to a county candidate under state law, $1,250.
Bennet’s donation “was not solicited,” Houck said. “In previous elections almost every check I got was from someone I knew, which was the old-fashioned way. Online donations is a new venture for me.”
Houck said Wednesday that he has received only one donation from a Gunnison County second-home owner, a $100 contribution from a Texan couple who have a house in Crested Butte.
All four candidates have accepted contributions from individuals who reside outside of Gunnison County.
Committees have provided a boost, as well. The Gunnison County Democratic Party gave $1,500 to Houck’s campaign in August, the same amount that the party gave to Smith’s campaign. Conservation Colorado endorsed Houck with a $200 donation. The environmental group gave $200 to Smith, too, along with its endorsement.
Houck has avoided spending personal funds, in part, because he has re-used signs from previous campaigns. He has also put to work stickers that have been in storage for four years.
Houck’s expenditures resemble those of the other commissioner candidates. All four have spent primarily on print advertising, signs, fliers, mailers and website fees.
“All of my expenditures are local, and I anticipate that I won’t have any out-of-county expenditures,” Houck said.
For District 1 candidates Smith and Taylor, a mix of donations and personal funds have covered expenses. Campaign signs and print ads have made up the bulk of their spending. Taylor has also bought radio ads.
Smith has received about $8,000 in donations and has put $10,000 of her own money into her race against Taylor, she said. $4,000 has gone to purchasing campaign signs, while a roughly equal amount has been spent on print ads in the Times and the Crested Butte News.
Smith points to her sudden entry in the race as one reason why she has relied on a sizable chunk of personal funds. The Gunnison County Democratic Party appointed her to fill John Messner’s seat in July, when Messner departed county government to join the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
In contrast, Taylor began campaigning officially in April with the filing of his candidate affidavit.
“When we started this was so abrupt,” Smith said. “Usually people have time to plan a campaign and map things out, but we did not have that, so we dumped $10,000 of our own money into our TRACER and said that if we could recoup that, that would be great.”
TRACER is the Colorado Secretary of State’s campaign finance reporting system. The system lists publicly both candidate expenditures as well as committee expenditures from political parties and political action committees (PACs).
As of Wednesday, the GV2H PAC formed by Gunnison Valley second-home owner James Moran had not reported its expenditures to the Colorado Secretary of State and had been fined $50 per day since Oct. 7.
Taylor’s campaign stands out for gathering the most money and for involving the largest quantity of personal funds. The candidate said Tuesday that he had injected $19,500 of his own money. Donations to the tune of $3,923 brought his total campaign revenues to $23,423 by the Tuesday reporting deadline.
Of donations from individuals Taylor has received “all have been at $100 or less with the one exception of my brother who lives in Nevada, who sent me $250,” Taylor said.
County-level party committees have contributed funds to the candidates, with the exception of Vader, but the parties have by no means bankrolled any of the contenders. Houck and Smith have received fractions of their campaign funds from the Gunnison County Democratic Party, even though the party has raised more money this cycle than in elections years past.
The Gunnison County Democratic Party has raised $12,994 so far, said Party Chair Jim Starr on Monday, and the average contribution has been $94. The party has a balance of about $3,100 in its bank account, an unusually high amount, he said. The county-level organization will keep about $1,500 to continue operations past the election. Party officials will likely decide how to divide the remainder between Houck and Smith in the coming days, he said. “We do not have much left,
and currently we are trying to get signs for Diane Mitsch Bush,” who is running for U.S. Representative in Colorado’s 3rd District, Starr said. “We are not coordinating with the congressionals (candidates) at all, but people ask us for signs so we might have some made up.” Jane Chaney, Gunnison
County Republican Party chair, said Monday that at its peak the party had “close to $5,000” for this election cycle. The party raised “several thousands” at its annual Lincoln Dinner barbecue, she said, and much of that has been spent on print advertising, postcards, Colorado House of Representatives candidates Marilyn Harris, District 59, and Kim McGahey, District 61.
The Gunnison County Republican Party gave $1,000 to Dave Taylor’s campaign but has not contributed to Vader’s.
Gunnison County Republicans stated on their Facebook page that the need to bring balance to the Board of County Commissioners “is why we must financially support and vote for Trudy Vader, Dist. 2 Unaffiliated Candidate and Dave Taylor Dist 1 Repubican Candidate!”
The county party could have donated to Vader “but we have chosen not to,” Chaney said.
Up-to-date expenditure and contribution reports for all candidates are available online through the Colorado Secretary of State’s TRACER website: https://tracer.sos.colorado.gov/.
(Sam Liebl can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)