Colorado Senate Race: “The Wild West of Spending”

Considered by some to host the most competitive Senate race in the country, Colorado is awash in political ads paid for by out-of-state groups.

The race ranks first-in-the-nation according to the amount of outside money being spent to sway voters. As of 4:45p.m. Friday, the website for the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks campaign contributions, listed $29,321,046 in total outside spending on the race. The money is coming in so fast the amount changes as the day goes on. The foundation's Nancy Watzman has been tracking the race pitting incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet against conservative Tea Party favorite Ken Buck.

Watzman says the amount being spent is partially due to the attractiveness of Colorado's relatively inexpensive media market, but the main driver is that the race is incredibly close.

"People don't spend money unless they think it's going to work," she points out. "It's not some charitable enterprise; they're out there to win."

The Real Clear Politics poll average has Buck ahead by just 1.6 percent. That average takes into account six different polls, each of which has the race well within its margin of error.

With the majority in the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance, the tightness of Colorado's race has outside interest groups clamoring to sway votes. Their efforts have been helped greatly by the January ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which reversed decades-old legislation banning corporate spending in candidate elections.

When the Court announced its decision, conventional wisdom held the ruling would disproportionately benefit the Republican Party. In Colorado's Senate race at least, that has not proven to be true, according to Watzman.

"Interestingly when you add together all the money including the money coming from the party committees and also these outside groups, they're kind of running neck and neck," said Watzman.

She added, "On the Bennet side there's a lot of money coming from both his campaign committee and also from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. On Buck's side, there's a lot of money coming from these new groups, these new fangled groups, that just sprung up this election."

Of the "new fangled groups," the conservative American Crossroads is the biggest outside spender in Colorado. So far they've shelled out more than $5-million dollars and it's likely they will ultimately spend twice as much to get Ken Buck elected as he will himself. The GOP candidate's campaign has raised around $3-million bucks while Bennet's campaign has raised around $11-million.

As for the money coming from out of state, Watzman says a great deal of it is being spent by groups whose donors are often untraceable. Many are organized under charity tax codes that do not require them to publically disclose donors.

"The Internal Revenue Service doesn't really crack down on this sort of practice," she said. "The FEC is kind of hands-off on a lot of these matters and it's all combining. And here in Colorado we're having basically the Wild West of political spending. Everybody's going out to grab the biggest gun they can, and there's no sheriff around."

One thing is certain, after November 2nd when Coloradans can finally turn on their televisions without being hit with a wall of campaign ads, political operatives on both sides will be analyzing the enormous spending on this race to create even more effective strategies for 2012.