Denver Mayor-elect Mike Johnston’s ability to consolidate progressive endorsements and attract big-money donors that supported huge media buys in the final days and weeks of the campaign helped propel his candidacy to defeat Kelly Brough in Tuesday’s runoff election.
In the end, the vote was not particularly close. Johnston led nearly 7 percentage points when initial results were released at 7 p.m Tuesday. By the time final unofficial results were posted on Wednesday afternoon, that lead grew to more than 10 points, a gulf of more than 16,700 votes.
From the perspective of Robin Kniech, the at-large City Councilwoman who did not endorse either candidate, the key to the race started with Johnston’s messaging and strategy.
“Mike ran as a Democrat in a Democratic city and he had a Democratic record,” Kniech said. “I think it’s that simple.”
City races are nonpartisan but both Brough and Johnston are aligned as Democrats. The two had plenty in common beyond that, often struggling to draw distinctions between themselves in the nine weeks between the general election and the runoff.
But Johnston had a few positions — committing not to arrest unhoused people even as a last resort when enforcing the city’s camping ban, embracing unionization for city workers — that allowed him to line up comfortably to Brough’s left.
That matters in a liberal city that elected a candidate (Sarah Parady) endorsed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America to an at-large City Council seat in April.
Johnston also presented a hopeful message during the campaign focusing on ways the city could improve and tackle its big challenges under new leadership. Brough’s campaign focused on her experience running the city as a former chief of staff to then-Mayor John Hickenlooper and her competence as an administrator of complex organizations like the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
“This was a race between a visionary and a manager and voters chose a visionary,” Kniech said.
Massive money disparity
With little in the way of public polling before election night, observers had to rely on other signals to get a sense of who was in the lead in the runoff. The conventional wisdom was that Brough was playing from behind throughout and not just because Johnston got 7,600 more votes than her in the first round.
Financial backing was a glaring indicator Johnston had the edge. While both candidates raised a little more than $2 million in direct contributions and matching public Fair Election Fund dollars, Johnston supporters buried Brough when it came to dark money.
A single donor to his independent expenditure committee — LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman — contributed at least $1.95 million, eclipsing by half a million dollars all the money doled out to Brough’s outside spending group in the race.
Independent expenditure committees can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money on races but can’t coordinate with the candidates they are working to elect. In total, the committee backing Johnston spent more than $4.9 million compared to the committee backing Brough’s $1.4 million.c
“We were up against really big money. We were against outside billionaires trying to influence this race,” Brough campaign spokesman Nico Delgado said on election night.
Brough’s campaign did receive support from at least one billionaire, conservative businessman Phil Anschutz, but he only gave $10,000, according to campaign finance records.
A massive advantage when it comes to being able to send mailers and buy TV and social media ad time doesn’t guarantee voters will be convinced to vote for a candidate, Kniech contends.
“Money buys you repetition, it doesn’t buy you the message,” she said. “Kelly had enough money to get her message out there. I don’t think we can say the voters did not hear her message.”
Brough’s record while leading the chamber — a 12-year period that saw the business advocacy organization oppose legislation and ballot initiatives to create a paid family program in Colorado, allow cities to set their own minimum wage and other liberal priorities — dogged her throughout the race. She attempted to overcome the perception that she would not be a champion for working-class people by sharing her personal story and hardships including a time when her family was on public assistance while she was in high school.
“When you’re running for a policy job, the voters get to interview you on your policy record. What’s in your heart is private, what’s in your record is eligible in your interview,” Kniech said. ” Her personal story did not overcome, for these voters, that record.”
Johnston, an Ivy League graduate whose family owns a hotel in Vail, meanwhile touted a record that included supporting stricter gun control measures when he was serving in the Colorado Senate and championing a statewide ballot measure last year that will create a dedicated revenue stream to build more affordable housing.
The Brough campaign challenged Johnston over his record, which critics say he embellished to improve his credentials. One independent expenditure-funded ad went so far as to call Johnston a liar for the way he portrayed his role on gun control bills and as part of the state’s COVID-19 testing program.
Those jabs didn’t land with enough voters to stop Johnston’s momentum.
Endorsements played a role
Endorsements mostly matter on the margins of races, in the experience of Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
But with thousands of voters whose candidates lost in the first round of Denver’s mayor’s race looking for a signal of who to vote for in the runoff, netting the endorsements of prominent progressives like State Rep. Leslie Herod and nonprofit CEO and long-time criminal justice reform advocate Lisa Calderón likely had more weight than usual in Masket’s estimation.
On election night Johnston recognized Herod, Calderón and other previous challengers-turned-endorsers from the stage during his victory speech. He told reporters in the room later that he believes endorsements matter in races like his.
“I think they show the breadth of the coalition you can build, from a (former Denver Mayor )Federico Peña to a Leslie Herod to the labor supporters that we have, to the business leaders. … That looked like Denver to people, and I think that mattered,” Johnston said.
Calderón also clearly felt her decision to back Johnston, lukewarm as it may have been, contributed to his win. She congratulated Johnston on Twitter on Wednesday morning adding, “Please do not let progressives down. And – you’re welcome.”
Herod’s endorsement became one of the few controversies of the runoff. In the waning weeks of the race, Brough accused Herod of offering to endorse her in exchange for a prominent position in a potential Brough administration. Herod steadfastly denied that allegation. Johnston and statehouse colleagues rushed to Herod’s defense and any implication that Johnson was willing to engage in quid pro quo for Herod’s endorsement never really gained momentum.
Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann noted that Brough’s most impactful endorsement may have been one she did not seek, welcome or advertise, that of the Denver Republican Party.
“The Republican voters were likely already with her. The only people who picked up on that cue were undecided left-leaning voters,” Sondermann said. “That’s not on Brough and Brough’s campaign.”
Denver Post staff writers Jon Murray and Saja Hindi contributed to this report.
Source: Read Full Article