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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Colorado PAC Attacks

Democratic candidates in Colorado’s Senate primary are attacking each other’s acceptance of PAC money — but one is being misleading, while the other fails to tell the full story.

First out of the box was Andrew Romanoff, accusing incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet of taking "nearly a million dollars from Washington special interests," including "big banks" and "big oil."

That’s true as far as it goes. By "special interests," Romanoff is referring to political action committees. And it’s true that Bennet had raised $1.3 million from PACs for his election through the end of June – a little more, even, than Romanoff’s ad says.

The ad implies without evidence, though, that Bennet’s votes are tied to his PAC receipts, telling us that "he votes to protect [the] profits" of the "big banks" who donate to him. Romanoff has said the ad refers to a Senate vote in early May on an amendment that would have limited the size of big banks, prohibiting any from holding more than 10 percent of the nation’s federally insured deposits. Bennet was part of the 61-vote majority that killed the provision, it’s true. It was also opposed by the Obama administration‘s economists.

But however easy it may be to cherry-pick a vote and build a damning narrative around it, the fact is that Bennet supported a far more sweeping bill to overhaul the financial regulatory system, a bill that was opposed by many in the industry. And the overhaul bill is expected to reduce profits at banks – the ones that the ad accuses Bennet of trying "to protect." Bennet also helped push a bill to rein in credit card companies last year.

The ad quickly turns to "big oil," saying that Bennet takes cash from the industry and "votes to let them keep billions in tax breaks."

The amendment the ad is talking about, which was sponsored by Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, was defeated 61-35 on June 15, and both Bennet and Colorado’s other senator, Democrat Mark Udall, were in the majority.

But Romanoff offers no proof that Bennet’s vote on the bill was brought about by campaign contributions. Bennet has said the bill would have hurt small Colorado oil and gas companies, and his spokesperson told the Colorado Independent that the measure "would have needlessly burned the industry and potentially cost Colorado good-paying jobs."

Et Tu, Brute?

Bennet quickly fired back at Romanoff with an ad that accuses the challenger of big-time hypocrisy. The ad starts with a clip of Romanoff saying in his own ad, "I don’t take a dime" of special interest PAC money.

"Oh really?" the narrator says.

Romanoff has been making an issue of the fact that he is not accepting PAC contributions in his Senate campaign since early in the race. But Bennet’s ad points out, correctly, that Romanoff had his own PAC, the Romanoff Leadership Fund, which he started in September 2004. And that PAC, which Romanoff used to support other Democrats in the Colorado Legislature, where he was House speaker, took contributions from the PACs of banks, insurance companies, oil companies, pharmaceutical corporations and others.

What the ad doesn’t tell us is that Romanoff closed his PAC earlier this year, on Jan. 10. He now says it was a mistake to have the PAC and to accept PAC money. "I believe I was wrong then, and I’m right now, and more candidates for public office should follow my lead," Romanoff told the ABC/Washington Post "Top Line" program.

Nor does it tell us that Romanoff’s PAC hasn’t been active for more than two years, except for a contribution to charity in late 2009. Its last checks to candidates were written in March 2008, and its most recent incoming donations – from individuals working in the health care industry, plus an accountants’ PAC – were received in November 2006.

We leave it to our readers to decide whether Romanoff is being hypocritical to attack Bennet for doing the very same thing he did for years – or whether it’s fair for Bennet to go after Romanoff without mentioning that the challenger shut his PAC in January and now says he believes he always should have steered clear of PAC money.

Update, Aug. 4: Because of new information brought to our attention by a reader, we have added a paragraph to our story reflecting the fact that Romanoff’s PAC has been inactive for more than two years, other than a donation to charity.