(“Heidi’s Dark Money” doesn’t sound as warm and fuzzy — Promoted by Colorado Pols)
More than six months prior to announcing her candidacy for Governor, University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl launched a podcast called Heidi’s Colorful Colorado (HCC). In her introductory video, Ganahl says, “In typical Heidi fashion, we’re doing things out of the box!”
Out of the box, indeed. While the project’s purpose is ostensibly “to bring the people of Colorado together,” the podcast is registered as a 501c4 “social welfare” nonprofit, i.e., a dark money group that can raise and spend essentially unlimited money indirectly supporting her campaign without disclosing its donors.
Ganahl’s podcast nonprofit corporation was registered by Gwen Benevento, an attorney at Maven Law Group, a favored firm of Colorado Republicans.
Benevento, who specializes in political, election, and campaign finance law, also filed the paperwork for Ganahl’s official campaign committee.
Ganahl’s gubernatorial campaign uses a very similar color scheme and logo as the podcast, so the podcast’s early launch gave her campaign a half-year head-start on building crucial name and brand identity.
Ganahl’s Sept 13 launch event only formalized a campaign that political observers considered a foregone conclusion for months. In early May, political commentator Eric Sondermann said as much to the Colorado Times Recorder.
“I don’t think she just decided to write a column and produce a podcast out of the blue,” said Sonderman. “I think they’re part of a conscious strategy to increase her profile.”
In mid-August, both The Denver Post and the Colorado Sun wrote about her presumed candidacy. The Post’s Alex Burness’ article was headlined “Heidi Ganahl all but says she’s running for governor,” while the Sun’s Jesse Paul wrote in his Unaffiliated newsletter that “[Ganahl] may as well be already in the 2022 race to challenge Gov. Jared Polis.”
The HCC podcast features hours of video and audio interviews Ganahl conducted with dozens of people from all over the state, including other public employees and elected officials. Most interviews run about 20 minutes and alternate between the subject’s answer to Ganahl’s questions and her own thoughts or positions on the topic at hand. As Ganahl explains in her initial video, she and her team traveled the state with a custom recording studio trailer in tow, producing podcast episodes in locations all over Colorado.
Ganahl is no stranger to statewide tours. In March of 2016, while running for her current Regent position, Ganahl embarked upon the Colorado Moms Tour.
The group sponsoring that tour? Another 501c4 nonprofit founded by Ganahl, Moms Fight Back.
The logistics of the HCC production can be challenging, as illuminated by emails, obtained via a public records request, between Ganahl’s Colorful Colorado team and one interviewee, Mesa County Public Health Director Jeff Kuhr.
HCC intended to record four episodes in Grand Junction in late July. The plan, as explained in emails by Grand Junction brand consultant Matthew Breman, was to park the HCC trailer in the Enstrom’s Toffee lot and have all the guests, including Kuhr and Enstrom’s CEO Doug Simons, meet there.
In addition to being a Western Slope institution, the candy-making Enstrom family also is involved in politics via former candidate Rick Enstrom, who’s also headed various independent political groups that have poured money into Republican causes in Colorado.
Unfortunately, the wildfire-induced mudslides in Glenwood Canyon closed Interstate 70, forcing Ganahl and her crew to reschedule for August. Breman wasn’t able to attend that recording but told Kuhr that Bobbie Daniel, who’s running for Mesa County Commissioner, would be there. Daniel and Breman are incidentally both on the board of another conservative 501c4, the Colorado Woman’s Alliance.
In addition to logistical information Breman’s email to Kuhr’s staff at Mesa County Public Health included the following statement:
“Once again, the podcasts are not political but about people that help make Colorado what it is and have a great story to tell.”
Ganahl’s HCC podcast team also asked interviewees to sign a standard release form granting the podcast rights to edit and use the HCC interviews as they see fit.
“I agree to be interviewed or otherwise participate in Heidi’s Colorful Colorado Podcast (herein referred to as the “Podcast”) and to assign the rights to the audio recording(s) made of me as part of the Podcast to Heidi’s Colorful Colorado, a Colorado nonprofit corporation. I also agree to authorize the editing, re-recording, duplication, reproduction, copyright, sale, exhibition, broadcast and/or distribution of said recording(s). I waive any right to inspect or approve the finished audio recording(s), photograph(s), or printed matter that may be used in conjunction with the Podcast or to the eventual use that it might be applied. I further agree that Heidi’s Colorful Colorado shall have the right to use my name, likeness, and performance in the Podcast to publicize or advertise the Podcast.” –Legal release language for Heidi’s Colorful Colorado podcast interviewees [emphasis added]
The podcast’s 501c4 designation means that it could use the interviews and other content in any number of ways that would benefit the Heidi for Governor effort.
The campaign is already taking advantage of HCC’s publication of a video and some photographs of Ganahl posing with various Coloradans.
The campaign’s launch video ad uses footage from an HCC “Highlights” movie, which is comprised entirely of slow-motion glamour shots set to music.
The Ganahl entities’ sharing of content reverses the common practice of campaigns creating and publishing content that independent groups then use for their own ads. That method, in which campaigns make content freely available to the public, avoids the possibility the material can run afoul of campaign finance rules restricting how much independent groups, such as 501c4 “social welfare” groups, can contribute to or be in support of a political campaign.
Depending on a variety of factors, including the production cost and the usage rights of the video and images, any media created by the HCC podcast and then used by the campaign could potentially be considered an in-kind contribution from the nonprofit to the campaign.
HCC could also decide to run an issue ad on some topic that has become a flashpoint during the campaign. Given the wide variety of issues covered by the 61 podcast interviews, HCC has plenty of material to work with.
Asked if there had been any discussion of HCC’s interview of Mesa County Public Health Director Kuhr potentially being used for a political purpose, a spokesperson provided the following statement via email:
Mesa County Public Health (MCPH) is not aware that the material during a recorded podcast would be used for a political purpose. We were approached for the interview with the understanding that the podcast featured Colorado residents enjoying our great state. It was communicated to us at the time of the interview the podcast was not political. … MCPH welcomes opportunities to talk about public health in ways outside the traditional programmatic approach. After researching the podcast and the descriptions given by the individual [who reached out to MCPH about doing the interview], on the website, and other materials we found, we agreed to the interview because it aligned with our intent to promote public health. Our conversation for Heidi’s Colorful Colorado podcast focused on Colorado; and the challenges residents, especially in Western Colorado face, along with improving the overall quality of life for all residents. We submitted a picture of Jeff Kuhr, our Executive Director fishing outdoors, and enjoying all that Colorado has to offer, in line with our understanding of the focus and intent of the podcast.
To be clear, it doesn’t appear that any of the HCC interviews have been used for political purposes so far, but given the campaign’s use of other HCC media, as well as the text of the podcast release, it’s a possibility.
The Heidi for Governor campaign is also using at least one still photograph from the HCC website.
The background image on the campaign’s “Take Action” page is also found on the podcast’s “Heidi Across Colorado” page, along with several other photos of Ganahl engaged in conversation with people at scenic Colorado locations, such as a cattle ranch and in front of the state capitol.
At least two other images, neither of which is publicly visible, are hosted on the campaign website and use the same “HCC_BTSDayOne” filename as the “Take Action” image.
Even if none of the podcast interviews end up in campaign material, the high-dollar production value of the endeavor could serve another purpose: spending lots of money on a technically non-political project. The more money HCC spends on the podcast, the more it’s permitted to spend on political campaign activity, as long as the political work does not constitute its “primary purpose.”
The Colorado Times Recorder asked Ganahl three questions about the HCC podcast nonprofit: Was it established with the intent of supporting her campaign for Governor? Will any of the audio or video from the podcast interviews be used either by the campaign or another group in support of her campaign? And is the campaign purchasing any material from the podcast nonprofit? Ganahl has not yet responded to the email inquiry. This article will be updated with any reply received.