Before Trump, Cambridge Analytica helped Colorado Republicans win a crucial Senate majority

Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

As fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal reverberates around the globe, new revelations detail the role the firm played in helping Colorado Republicans gain a key legislative majority in 2014.

Few things are of greater consequence in Colorado politics than the one-seat state Senate majority Republicans have held over the last two election cycles.

The Senate has been a crucial conservative bulwark in a state where the electorate is trending solidly blue and Democrats hold the legislature’s lower chamber and the governorship. In the current legislative session alone, Senate Republicans’ razor-thin majority is all that stands between Coloradans and dozens of broadly popular Democratic priorities — from bans on gay conversion therapy and bump stocks to proposals to institute universal full-day kindergarten and paid family medical leave.

And now, Coloradans are learning how the GOP won its all-important majority in the 2014 midterms: in part, through a major partnership with a political consulting firm now facing extensive allegations of data theft, fraud, illegal coordination, and other misconduct.

As first reported by the Denver Post on Tuesday, tax filings show that in 2014 and 2015 Colorado Republican groups paid nearly half a million dollars to Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that led digital advertising efforts for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and is now under fire following a series of revelations about its unethical and potentially illegal practices.

In Colorado, the firm provided the GOP-aligned Senate Majority Fund and a separate “dark money” group, Concerned Citizens for Colorado, with analysis that “allowed Republican operatives to target specific voters based on personality and political issues,” according to the Post. The two groups paid Cambridge Analytica and its parent, SCL Group, a total of $344,000 in 2014 and a further $100,000 in 2015.

At the time, Cambridge Analytica had already begun to improperly harvest the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users, according to investigations published last week by the Guardian and the New York Times. Those reports have been followed by a series of undercover videos released by the UK’s Channel 4, which showed the firm’s executives discussing misinformation tactics, the extortion of political opponents, and potentially illegal coordination between campaigns and super PACs.

Colorado was one of eleven “key states” targeted by Cambridge Analytica in the initial phase of its Facebook data-mining scheme, according to the Guardian. Using an app approved only for non-commercial academic research, the firm paid hundreds of thousands of users a few dollars each to take a personality quiz and to grant access to their personal information and Facebook activity — as well as similar data from their friends. This tactic, which Facebook said last week violated its rules, ultimately harvested data from over 50 million users.

“I was aware they were selling a comprehensive voter profile but not necessarily where they get the information,” Andy George, the GOP operative who led the Senate Majority Fund campaign in 2014, told the Denver Post.

George, naturally, sought to downplay Cambridge Analytica’s impact, telling the Post that “their pitch was better than their performance.” But it seems clear that the partnership was a significant one to both parties; Cambridge Analytica’s work in Colorado was an early foothold for the British-owned firm as it expanded into American politics, and the Senate Majority Fund’s investment in its services was considerable.

Backed by right-wing mega-donor Robert Mercer and then-Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon, Cambridge Analytica “dived into the American midterm elections” in 2014, according to the New York Times, and the Senate Majority Fund was among its first clients. The firm even touted its efforts in Colorado on its website, crediting its work in reaching “targeted populations according to modeled issue importance and psychographic profiles” for victories in three key state Senate races.

It should be noted, too, that in the context of a state legislative campaign fund, $444,000 is an enormous sum of money. The Senate Majority Fund raised slightly less than $1.8 million to spend on behalf of its candidates in 2014, according to campaign disclosures; the $344,000 paid to Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group that year represents nearly 20 percent of that total.

While its partnership with Cambridge Analytica appears to have ended in 2015, the Senate Majority Fund is gearing up to protect its one-seat advantage once again this year. Its donors — mostly corporations, billionaires, and other deep-pocketed PACs — contributed over $1 million in 2017, a record haul for a non-election year.

Democrats are hopeful that a wave of grassroots energy can help them regain control of the Senate this year, finally removing the last obstacle standing in the way of some much-needed progressive reforms. But to do so, they’ll have to overcome a Republican Party with a vast, well-funded network of super PACs and dark-money groups — and, it’s now clear, a history of retaining the services of bad actors.