Democratic Senate candidates with ties to education continue to gather significant campaign contributions, and outside political committees now also are spending significantly in battleground races.

For example, consider Arvada Democrat Rachel Zenzinger, an appointed freshman who sits on the Senate Education Committee and who is seeking a full-four year term from a Jefferson County district evenly divided among Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters.

Democrats are battling hard to maintain – or improve – their 18-17 majority in the Senate, and the heavy spending in certain races reflects that.

Zenzinger’s campaign committee has raised more than $193,000 according to a campaign finance report filed Monday, one of the largest amounts of any Democratic Senate candidate. She raised nearly $20,000 in just the last two weeks of September.

But Zenzinger also has been the indirect beneficiary of at least $71,000 in additional spending by what are called independent expenditure committees. Two of those committees, Citizens Alliance for Accountable Leadership and Colorado Voters Voice, have paid for television ads and digital media supporting her candidacy.

Independent committees also have spent money on behalf of several other Democratic Senate and House candidates. Election law allows independent expenditure committees to spend money for and against candidates, but those efforts aren’t supposed to be coordinated with candidates.

Citizens Alliance and Voters Voice are part of a network of committees affiliated with the Democratic Party, labor unions and progressive groups. Democrats and donors organized the system several elections ago and have successfully used it to support candidates.

Here’s an example of how it works:

  • A group named Mainstream Colorado has raised $2.9 million. Its donors include corporations, political action committees, other groups and individuals. From the education world, the Colorado Education Association has given $100,000, the American Federation of Teachers $50,000 and Education Reform Now $85,000. (That last group connected to Democrats for Education Reform.)
  • Mainstream has spent $2.3 million, including $720,708 to Citizens Alliance. In turn it spent that money with Adelstein Liston, a Chicago-based political consulting and advertising firm, to produce advertising materials boosting Zenzinger and four other Democratic Senate candidates, as well as materials opposing some Republican candidates.

Republicans use similar tactics with outside committees. A committee named the Senate Majority Fund, which backs GOP candidates, has raised $1.3 million and spent $470,377. It’s received $22,000 from K12 Management Inc., the for-profit education company, and $20,000 from Ed McVaney, a longtime school choice backer, among lots of other contributors. The Fund is what’s called a “527” committee, and such groups don’t necessarily have to specify which candidates they support or oppose.

Another 527, Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, has raised $350,000 and spent $205,399, again without reporting which races it’s spending in.

Citizens Alliance is an “independent expenditure” committee and subject to somewhat different reporting rules.

The complexity and variation in campaign finance contribution and reporting laws is part of the reason for the variety of committees. There are limits on the size of contributions to candidate committees, and corporations can’t donate directly to candidates. Such limits don’t apply to independent expenditure and 527 committees, so they offer a way to support candidates without direct contributions to candidate themselves.

Other Democratic Senate candidates who’ve been the beneficiaries of independent spending by Citizens Alliance include Andy Kerr in Jefferson County, Mike Merrifield in Colorado Springs and Judy Solano in Adams County.

Those three are have high-profile names in education. Kerr, a Jeffco teacher, is chair of the Senate Education Committee. Merrifield and Solano are retired teachers and former House members. Merrifield was chair of House Education, and Solano was known as one of the legislature’s harshest critics of standardized testing.

How the candidates and committees are doing

Many candidate committees continued a fast pace of fundraising during the last two weeks of September. Senate candidates of both parties grew their war chests at a faster rate than House candidates.

There was virtually no new fundraising by the two committees battling over Amendment 68, the slots-for-schools constitutional amendment. Both those groups raised and committed their funds earlier in order to reserve TV ad spots.

The two sides have spent a total of about $32 million, about the same amount as the annual general fund spending of a 5,000-student school district.

Get the details in the chart below. Select a candidate or candidates to generate bar graphs at the top of the chart. Story continues after the chart.

Education-focused committees less active

Things were relatively quiet for education-oriented political action and small donor committees during the latest reporting period.

Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent $10,243 on a mailing for Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and $12,594 on direct mail for Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge.

The Public Education Committee, the main campaign contribution arm of the CEA, also made some modest new contributions to Democratic candidates.

The DCTA Fund, affiliated with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, made its first foray into the general election campaign with some small contributions to a few Democratic legislative and statewide candidates, and it also gave to the state Democratic Party.

Key to chart: SDC means small donor committee, usually funded by dues or individual small contributions from a large number of people. IE means independent expenditure committee, which can spend for or against candidates, but spending can’t be coordinated with campaigns. PAC means political action committee, which can contribute directly to candidates.