Colorado campaign ad spending is still tough to track

New disclosure laws help, but it remains hard to see the full picture of Rocky Mountain buys

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — On a recent Thursday, journalist Sandra Fish was on the campus of Colorado State University in Pueblo giving a talk she’s been presenting around the state. Its title: “Tools for Journalists: Following the Colorado Money.” There’s a lot of money in politics to follow here, and during the campaign season, those dollars fund a lot of ads.

The state has one of the key Senate races in this fall’s midterm election, pitting Democratic incumbent Mark Udall against GOP challenger Cory Gardner and drawing heavy spending from outside groups on both sides. Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is in a close re-election campaign against Bob Beauprez, and the contest in the state’s 6th Congressional District, between Republican incumbent Mike Coffman and challenger Andrew Romanoff, is being watched as a marker of the Latino vote nationwide.

With so many high-profile races, and a red-blue divide that closely parallels the broader nationwide split, Colorado has become a key bellwether state. What that means on the ground, says Fish, who runs the blog COPolitics, is “a barrage of TV ads”—$43 million in ad buys in Colorado, she says, or almost 18 full days’ worth of commercials, as of August 15.

But with local-level ad buys widely available online for the first time since July 1 thanks to a 2012 FCC ruling, Fish sees journalistic opportunity, a chance to track how campaigns are targeting voters and where the money’s coming from. So far, though, a lack of consistency in file formats and reluctance by TV stations to clarify or expand on information has likely deterred most mainstream reporters at big newspapers or TV stations from tackling the beat.

Fish is one of the few journalists who is consistently covering the issue, for Colorado Public Radio. In a recent piece, she used the new online data to show how few political ads—only two at the time—were aimed at Latino voters on Colorado’s Spanish-language broadcast stations. That’s newsworthy, given that Colorado is really the only key state with a sizable Latino electorate (15 percent), and immigration reform is a significant issue in this fall’s races. (This week, the Udall campaign released a Spanish language attack ad against Gardner to air on Univision and Telemundo in Denver.)

At The Denver Post, the task of going through the online records fell to a summer intern. Thad Moore wrote a solid piece last week after analyzing hundreds of TV contracts for ad spending in the Denver market, where almost $20 million had been committed to pay for 120 hours of 30-second spots for the final few weeks of the campaign. Moore reported on the ins and outs of buying campaign ads, pointed out how and why candidates and political groups are given different rates, and also illustrated how some TV stations don’t seem all that willing to talk about the issue. The general manager of Denver’s KUSA and KTVD, for instance, “said he wouldn’t discuss campaign spending,” and “his counterparts at KDVR, KCNC and KMGH didn’t return interview requests.”

Now back at school at the University of South Carolina, Moore told me his piece, which he began after doing a webinar with the Sunlight Foundation, took two or three weeks to complete. Data entry alone took four days, he said; stations don’t use a standardized form, so he had to make his own database out of many PDFs.

“It’s a really intensive process, and I think that’s probably why more people aren’t doing it,” he says. “The FCC isn’t making it really easy.”

And even with the new disclosure rules, some loopholes, gaps, and mysteries remain. Consider what happened in April after Fish analyzed ad-buy contracts at several Colorado TV stations for the online news site Colorado Independent. Her piece reported on the single largest ad buy in the state: reserved airtime on KHMG Channel 7, Denver’s ABC affiliate, for 1,300 spots over a three-month period at a cost of more than $740,000. The order was placed by Target Enterprises, a Los Angeles-based media firm with a conservative client list.

When the group reserved the air time, KHMG uploaded a document to its public political file. But the contract didn’t say who the group’s client was, and the company didn’t respond when Fish tried to find out. The TV station wasn’t any more helpful in the matter; its sales director told Fish she wouldn’t ID the buyer, because “they are not candidates and are not of national importance.” Soon after, the contract disappeared from the FCC’s site. To date, the beneficiary of Colorado’s largest ad buy is still unknown, Fish says.

Writing on the issue in June at The Sunlight Foundation, Jacob Fenton explained that the disclosure rules “require details about requests for ads that target federal candidates, but not issues that are purely local.” But, he wrote, there is “little enforcement of these rules … so national advertisers often file paperwork that erroneously claims their ads aren’t national.” Sunlight has a searchable tool on its website, PoliticalAdSleuth, that collects TV files around the country. In May, the group partnered with Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation to file complaints with the FCC about a dozen TV stations—including one against KMGH—that said the stations weren’t disclosing details required about ads with a national scope.

For her part, Fish says she still expects the document to resurface before Election Day—if the group who paid for the ad still wants to use the airtime. “Somebody arranged to purchase that time, and if they have arranged to purchase that time they’re going to have to reveal it at some point,” she says. “I think they just didn’t want to reveal it at that particular point.”

And if the airtime ends up not being used after all, that may be a clue to what the buyer intended. In addition to the House, Senate, and gubernatorial contests, the state has been headed for an ad war over fracking-related initiatives slated to appear on the November ballot. Those initiatives, however, have been withdrawn because of a recent compromise forged by Hickenlooper. (For an excellent behind-the-scenes account of how that went down, see this August 23 piece by Lynn Bartels in The Denver Post.)

So there’s a possibility, Fish says, that the group might have reserved the spots to air ads about those ballot initiatives, and now might not need the airtime after all. But without knowing who the client is, it’s hard to say.

Moving forward, one thing is clear: if the contract does reappear, Fish will have a prominent platform to report on it in the future. The Colorado Public Radio assignment involves a weekly Web piece about what she finds in the ad-buy files. Here in Colorado, she’s got plenty of material to keep her busy.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at [email protected].