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Turnout up slightly in Denver mayor runoff as super PAC money continues to flow


Turnout up slightly in Denver mayor runoff as super PAC money continues to flow

Jun 05, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Chase Woodruff
Turnout up slightly in Denver mayor runoff as super PAC money continues to flow
Denver mayoral candidates Kelly Brough, left, and Mike Johnston participate in a debate at Regis University on Feb. 9, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

What was once a 16-way Denver mayor’s race has been narrowed down to a head-to-head runoff election on Tuesday between Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough, and city voters appear to be more tuned in than they were ahead of April’s first round.

Ballot return data published by the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s office showed that 18.6% of voters had returned a ballot as of four days before the June 6 runoff, up from 13.2% at the same point two months ago.

Denver voters can still return their ballots though one of the city’s 43 ballot drop boxes or vote in person at one of 10 voting centers, which are listed on the clerk’s website. It’s too late to return ballots through the mail.

Johnston, a former Democratic state senator, and Brough, the former head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, qualified for the runoff in April’s first-round election with 24.5% and 20% of the vote, respectively. Incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock is term-limited after 12 years in office.

Both candidates are moderates with long track records in Colorado’s centrist political establishment. Johnston defied many in his party to lead major education reform efforts during his time in the Legislature, while Brough helped lead conservative business interests’ fight against an array of Democratic priorities at the statehouse.

Head-to-head debates between the two candidates have featured few stark disagreements over policy, but in the final weeks of the runoff, Johnston has won endorsements — some of them reluctant — from a half-dozen progressive former rivals in the mayor’s race. Brough has been endorsed by former Democratic Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, along with the Denver Police Protective Association and other unions representing law enforcement officers and firefighters.

Johnston boasts a nearly 2-to-1 financial advantage over Brough thanks to a independent expenditure committee, Advancing Denver, which has raised more than $4.7 million from wealthy donors. Commonly known as super PACs, such committees are allowed to raise and spend unlimited sums of money from wealthy donors and corporations but are barred from directly coordinating with candidates and their campaigns.

The pro-Johnston group has has relied on many of the same out-of-state billionaire donors who boosted his gubernatorial bid in 2018, including former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and hedge fund managers Steve Mandel and John Arnold. Hoffman added more than $400,000 contributions to Advancing Denver in the final week before election day, bringing his total to over $1.8 million, according to disclosures.

A Better Denver, an independent expenditure committee supporting Brough, has struggled to raise large sums since the April 4 first-round election. Its top donors include the National Association of Realtors, the Colorado Construction Industry Coalition and Republican megadonor and brewing scion Pete Coors.

Three seats on the Denver City Council will also be decided by runoffs on Tuesday: former RTD director Shontel Lewis faces Brad Revare for an open District 8 seat; incumbent Council member Candi CdeBaca faces challenger Darrell Watson in District 9; and incumbent Council member Chris Hinds faces challenger Shannon Hoffman in District 10.

Voters have until 7:00 p.m. on election night to return their ballots or cast a vote in person.