'I am the first Democrat elected to the state Senate from El Paso County since 1974," says John Morse. "The Republicans very much see this as their seat, and I very much see it as the people's seat. They want this seat back in the worst way. I am in one of two truly competitive Senate seats in the state."
It's a point on which even state Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams agrees. But if you want more proof, and you live in the district that includes much of central, southern and southeastern Colorado Springs, just go to your mailbox. With less than three weeks left before Election Day, Morse says that "to the best of our knowledge, in the last 13 mail days, there have been 12 or 13 mailers. One a day, basically."
The vast majority of these mailers have been paid for by 527s, tax-exempt organizations that by law must operate independently of the candidates and their campaigns, yet are able to funnel large sums of money into notoriously vicious, and sometimes slanderous, attack ads.
'No factual basis'
The 527 responsible for these attack mailers is called Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government. In its latest filing, it lists only three contributors, including well-known Colorado 527s Senate Majority Fund, LLC and Colorado Leadership Fund, LLC, which have together dumped $275,000 into the organization. The third contributor is the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national GOP 527, which gave the group $400,000.
On the Republican side, Morse's opponent, newcomer Owen Hill, has also become a target. The Democratic 527 Twenty First Century Colorado is responsible for a cutthroat TV spot. In the ad, what are supposed to be Morse's worn-out boots speak directly to the camera, slamming Hill as being bad for our troops. A "particularly reprehensible" attack, Wadhams says, "because Owen is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, of course, and there is no factual basis for anything that the ad says."
Twenty First Century Colorado has taken large contributions from liberal groups, such as the Public Education Committee and the Massachusetts-based Progressive Future.
Hill's campaign declined multiple requests for an interview to discuss campaign ads, claiming there would be no time before the election.
One Hill-friendly mailer claims that Morse leads "the team of politicians who have ruined our economy and killed our jobs," listing taxes and fees that Morse allegedly voted to increase, including an alleged $3.8 billion in property taxes. Another says Morse "voted to raise property taxes for seniors on fixed incomes ... pushing many seniors beyond the breaking point." And as is typical of such political ads, there are no attempts to cite any material to defend the claims, leaving the candidate to fight a formless enemy.
"I don't know what they are referring to," Morse says. "It looks to me as though it is a bald-faced lie. Taxes can't be raised in Colorado without the will of the people. So when you accuse me of raising taxes, anything you say after that is a lie."
Of course, the Morse race isn't the only one plagued by these attack campaigns. Several mailers, though fewer in number, have popped up in the local House District 18 race between Democrat Pete Lee and Republican Karen Cullen. And Monday, the Denver Post reported on an ad funded by Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government that claimed state Democratic House candidate Brian O'Donnell of Durango wants to ban fishing on public lands, despite the fact that he worked for Trout Unlimited.
When asked about the specific claim that he raised property taxes on seniors, Morse says he figures it's alluding to the Legislature's suspension of the Senior Homestead Exemption, which allows qualifying seniors to exempt a certain value of their home from taxation.
It isn't the first time the state has suspended the tax break for seniors; in 2004, a Republican-controlled state government did the same thing to balance the budget. This time around, the Democrats made that choice, which Morse calls a "hard thing to do. But we had to do it, so we do it." If they hadn't taken that step, he says, the state would have had to cut nearly $100 million from schools.
"But it's not a tax increase. You just have to pay your property tax."
Frustrated, he says, "These groups don't just twist the truth, they make up bald-faced lies."
"They said in late April that they were going to spend $800,000 unseating John Morse," he continues. "Now, whether they actually do that, I don't have any idea."
If they do: "My side will spend a similar amount defending me. So, I knew going into it that there was a good chance that by Nov. 2, I would have $1.6 million more name recognition than I did then. And half of it would be that I am the devil incarnate, and half of it would be that I walk on water."