DENVER — Colorado Republicans are once again raising concerns about some ads they say are not only deceptive but illegal.
Last week, the state’s GOP decried some television commercials that were paid for by Democratic-backed groups targeting state Rep. Ron Hanks and gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez. Republicans claimed those ads were actually attempting to encourage conservative voters to cast ballots for those candidates.
This time, Republicans are taking issue with some political mailers that, once again, focus on Hanks. On the front of the mailer, the ad claims to be the true conservative voter guide. On the back, the ads compare Hanks and businessman Joe O’Dea’s stance on the issue of taxes and spending.
“My objection is not to the content of these ads. We let the campaigns debate that out and prove their own records,” said Colorado Republican chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown.
What Burton Brown does have a problem with, however, is a portion of the mailer that says Hanks was endorsed by the Colorado Republican party. Another ad uses a logo that looks similar to the state Republican Party’s logo.
“They're acting like this is the Republican Party doing it. They're saying the Republican Party has endorsed a particular candidate, that the Republican Party is sending these mailers, and we're not doing that,” Burton Brown said.
Under its bylaws, the state’s Republican Party is barred from endorsing any candidate in the primaries. The party's goal is to be neutral until the voters pick a candidate, and then throw its support behind that candidate.
Burton Brown worries that these ads might influence the votes of some people who are led to believe that this is how the party wants them to vote.
“People who think that we're actually putting our stamp on this and telling people who they should vote for really hurts our integrity as a party, our neutrality, the trust our candidates have in us,” Burton Brown said.
The state’s GOP is now considering a possible defamation lawsuit against the people behind those mailers. Election law attorney Mario Nicholais says that could be difficult to prove, though, since the legal bar for defamation is set so high.
Nicholais' guess is that the group behind the ads will try to argue that Hanks was selected as the candidate of choice at the Republican state assembly, which the group might incorrectly perceive as an endorsement.
Nicholais believes, though, that Republicans have a right to be angry over this political tactic and says he understands if they decide to move forward with legal action.
“I might file it anyway just to show people, "Hey, look, we don't approve of organizations going after us. And we might not win. But we're sure going to expose you." And it might be worth it to them just to do that,"” Nicholais said.
The false endorsement isn’t the only issue Republicans are raising with the mailers. Nowhere on the ad is there a disclaimer saying who paid for it or is behind it, which is a violation of federal election law.
O’Dea’s campaign has filed an civil complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act, seeking immediate relief in district court and letters to district attorneys around the state over the mailers.
“It's absolutely required. If you don't have it on your mailer, or on your television ad, or your internet broadcasts, or something, it's a dead bang campaign finance violation,” Nicholais said.
The FEC’s rules go so far as to lay out the language that must be used in the ads for disclosing who is behind them.
Republicans are accusing Democratic groups of once again meddling in their primaries with the ads, though there is no concrete proof that a Democratic group is behind them. There is, however, a very small logo in the corner that can be traced back to a union in Iowa and a printing company known as Christian Edwards. That printing company is known to mainly work with Democratic organizations.
Denver7’s calls to the printing company were not returned.
Even if the lawsuit is successful, Nicholais says it takes time and might not be resolved before the primary or even the general election.
“That's one of the problems we've got with our current system,” he said.
There are also concerns about whether any punishment will actually amount to real change or whether it would be a slap on the wrist for violators.
“Are they being fined? And is it enough? Is it one that would dissuade people from doing in the future? Also, you know, is this just a pop-up organization? And have they folded by the time they get fined?” Nicholais said.
He worries that some groups might consider the fines simply the cost of doing business in an "everything is fair in politics" mentality.
Republicans were accused in 2018 of using deceptive tactics in the Andrew Romanoff and John Hickenlooper primary. However, Burton Brown says there really is no comparison since the National Republican Senate Committee disclosed that they paid for the ads and did not spend nearly as much on them.
For now, all she can do is try to get the word out that Republicans were not behind this ad and hope primary voters will pay attention.