The four millionaires.
Since 2004, Republican politicians have worried about four wealthy Democrats who have poured millions into state elections. Their names wouldn't be familiar to average Coloradans - two of them avoid the limelight and rarely grant interviews - but every GOP operative in the state knows who they are.
Tim Gill, Pat Stryker, Jared Polis, and Rutt Bridges.
A disparate group of self-made entrepreneurs and heirs to family fortunes, the four wealthy Democrats have helped spark a resurgence for the Democratic Party in Colorado. They worked together closely in 2004 and helped to fund the Democrats' takeover of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in decades. All of them will be heavily involved in state politics this year, too.
"If you were to do a list of the most powerful people in Colorado, those four would be at the top," said Katy Atkinson, a Republican campaign consultant. "Their impact has been enormous."
For years, Republicans almost always outspent Democrats in legislative races, but that changed in 2004 when the four millionaires poured in a combined $1.6 million. Most of that money went into "527" independent committees that are exempt from most limits on spending.
Bridges makes no apologies for his financial support. "I think Democrats got tired of showing up at a gun fight with a knife," he said.
Like the other millionaires, Bridges says he was alarmed by the actions of the Republican-controlled legislature. While budgets for education and health care were being slashed, legislators debated proposals to ban discussion of homosexuality in classrooms and crack down on "liberal bias" on college campuses. He thinks the Democrats have shown voters they can be trusted during the past two years.
"They worked with the governor to pass Referendum C, that's really the key," said Bridges. "They demonstrated a level of responsibility."
Ref C allowed the state to spend several billion dollars that would otherwise have been returned to taxpayers.
Bridges says he'd like to see 527s "eliminated from the face of the Earth," but says Democrats will continue to have to use them to face down Republicans.
"I don't believe in unilateral disarmament," said Bridges, who adds he would support publicly financed campaigns as an alternative.
In response to the four millionaires, Republicans set up their own 527, the Trailhead Group.
"We can't afford to become irrelevant," said Alan Philp, director of Trailhead. "It would be hard to believe even a few years ago that Democrats would be the party of wealth and resources and the Republicans would be the little guys trying to scrape things together."
However, Trailhead has rounded up support from its own collection of millionaires, including Pete Coors and Bruce Benson.
Jared Polis says he won't be giving any money to 527s this year, but he has been hosting fundraisers for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket. He thinks Democrats are increasingly appealing to Colorado's large number of unaffiliated voters.
"Democrats are winning the battle of ideas in Colorado. That's evident with the passage of Ref C," he said. "Voters are seeing the Democrats stand for practical issues people care about."
Most of the funding for the Democratic 527s this year is expected to come from Stryker and Gill. Neither returned calls seeking comment.
Gill, a prominent gay rights activist, is also funding the campaign for the ballot measure that would allow gays to establish domestic partnerships.
"You have four people who've decided my retirement hobby is to change Colorado politics," said Denver political consultant Floyd Ciruli with a laugh.
Republicans like Philp often say the Democrats' resurgence is because of the new money, but Ciruli thinks the four millionaires are just a part of the equation.
Democrats have been making gains in other states in the mountain West, and Ciruli says they're benefiting from anxiety over the economy and the often bitter splits between moderates and conservatives in the GOP.
"Having (the four millionaires) is very significant, but it goes with good issues, good candidates and the economy," said Ciruli.
Follow the money
Here are the Colorado 527s that have collected donations from the Democrats' wealthy supporters:
Citizens for Colorado (based in Denver)
Tim Gill $250,000
Pat Stryker $83,334
Rutt Bridges $50,000
Coloradans for Life (based in Longmont)
Tim Gill $79,082
Pat Stryker $79,082
Jon Stryker* $79,082
Clear Peak (based in Denver)
Pat Stryker $217,090
Tim Gill $124,265
*Jon Stryker is Pat Stryker's brotherSource: Campaign Filings With The Irs And Colorado Secretary Of State
What is a 527 committee?
They are named for the federal tax code it falls under. Such political committees can receive unlimited donations.
Who are the four millionaires?
Tim Gill was the founder of software company Quark, where he made a fortune that Forbes Magazine estimated at more than $425 million.
Pat Stryker was born into one of the wealthiest families in the country. Forbes has estimated her net worth at more than $960 million.
Jared Polis is a member of the state board of education. His parents founded the Blue Mountain Arts greeting card company, and he helped them create an Internet site that was sold in 1999 for $900 million.
Rutt Bridges created software for the oil and gas industry that earned him more than $30 million.
steerss@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-594-2282