Late in the 2016 election cycle, billionaire political activist George Soros made a series of unexpected yet creative moves with his money that paid high dividends. While continuing to donate to high-profile races like those for president and the Senate, he also poured millions of dollars into smaller races for district attorney in places like Illinois, Georgia, Texas and Colorado.
From Soros' perspective, the effort would probably be deemed a success, as 10 of the 12 candidates he backed won their races.
Yet one of the races that eluded Soros as a "win" was the district attorney's race in Jefferson County, Colo., often considered one of the most important swing counties in the purple state.
If you buy into the maxim that you learn more from defeat than victory, then the Colorado race provides valuable insight: How does a candidate beat back a surprise attack from George Soros? And how is Soros likely to improve upon his strategy that has had one trial run?
For Pete Weir, the incumbent district attorney and lifelong Republican who outlasted the $1.3 million aimed against him, a long and bipartisan track record in criminal justice certainly helped. But the race likely became a referendum on Soros and his tactics the minute the billionaire cut the first check to his independent expenditure committee.
Colorado political analyst Eric Sondermann says once the donations to Weir's challenger became known, "the magnitude of Soros' engagement was exposed and became an issue, perhaps the issue, in the contest."
Weir got a bipartisan boost when former Gov. Bill Ritter, a lifelong Democrat and a former prosecutor, penned an op-ed slamming the Soros machine. The editorial was published just as mail-in ballots were being delivered to voters' homes. Two more Democrat prosecutors later vouched for Weir, authoring another op-ed in the paper of record, titled, "George Soros' unwelcome intrusion into a Colorado district attorney race."
Two weeks later, Weir was the beneficiary of a house editorial from the Post, which called the campaign "misleading," and which was also was stuffed with adjectives like "subterfuge" and "unfair."
"Those strongly worded editorials, coming in a race in which the Post might well have not weighed in at all under normal circumstances, added to the public dialogue, and by their very existence were evidence of the fact that this issue had taken root," Sondermann said.
"I guess you also have to give [Soros] credit in that there is some transparency here, that they don't hide that the source of funds are coming from George Soros," Weir said. "But I believe what he's doing is dangerous."
While acknowledging that prosecutorial discretion is a part of the job, Weir says Soros' ultimate intent is to have his candidates promote a vision of social justice that bypasses years of hard-won consensus. "He is trying to identify candidates that will follow Soros' view of social justice and [his] political agenda. And he does this by bypassing the legislative process."
The monetary limits on donating to a declared candidate in a district attorney's race are $400 in Colorado. By creating an independent expenditure committee, Soros legally gave roughly 300 times beyond that while maintaining total control of the message. In the Colorado race, Soros waited to uncork his strategy until late September, a point so late in the contest that it made counter-fundraising nearly impossible.
Given Soros' history as an investor, it's fair to analyze his moves in terms of return on investment. His best ROI appeared to come in Illinois and Georgia. In Chicago, his independent campaign essentially determined the primary winner in heavily Democratic Cook County. Early contributions in February and March of the election cycle came as even more of a surprise. In Georgia, a mere $100,000 donation caused the Republican candidate to drop out.
In those two instances, Soros kept his investment under $500,000, compared to the millions he sunk into general election contests later in the year.
Taking the longer view, Weir noted that one of the only potential checks on this new strategy in the future would require a consortium of political donors to have a war chest set aside, but ready to be activated in any state within days of noticing the opening moves made by Soros.
"I think it's important to level that playing field," Weir said. "I wouldn't necessarily like to see the PACs come in in support of a candidate where Soros' money is not involved, but, it would also be very, very beneficial that you could not have an individual such as George Soros come in and buy justice. And that was how we tried to refute his claim. Justice was not for sale in Jefferson County."