When progressives drew up Arizona’s Clean Elections experiment, they figured the public financing of elections would broaden the type of candidates who seek office.
Instead, conservatives tapped into the funding and continually boosted their ranks and power in the state.
That conservative movement now faces a setback with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that limits Arizona’s Clean Elections, though political analysts are still weighing just how.
Political consultant Constantin Querard anticipated the court’s ruling earlier this year and started a fund to help conservative candidates who have been relying on public financing.
He’s helped several conservatives oust more moderate Republicans in primaries, usually with public funding. Those gains will be lost if conservatives can’t find a substitute for the Clean Elections money, he said.
“If conservatives get organized and they do their part, they’ll be able to defend the conservative Legislature that we have,” Querard said. “If they don’t get organized, then I think you’ll see things move left.”
Clean Elections allowed political newcomers to win office who don’t have the kinds of connections with the business community that is often essential to raising support and funding. Once non-traditional candidates win a term, they usually establish relationships that let them forgo Clean Elections funding in subsequent campaigns, Querard said.
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry welcomes the court decision. How candidates raise funds is often central to their community ties, chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor said.
“Going forward, candidates are going to have to talk to a wider audience of potential constituents,” Taylor said. “No longer can a candidate rely on a relatively small group of support to fund his or her campaign.”
The Legislature is the largest body of potential Clean Elections candidates. To qualify for about $36,000 in funding for a primary and general election, candidates must collect $5 contributions from 220 donors. If a traditionally funded opponent raises more money or has an independent group spend on his behalf, the Clean Elections candidate gets matching funds.
Arizona voters approved the Clean Elections Act in 1998 after political scandals marred the state’s image. Most embarrassing was the 1991 so-called AzScam bribery investigation in which lawmakers were videotaped taking wads of cash.
Public funding was supposed to clean up politics.
And it was supposed to level the playing field in elections.
That’s the very notion that triggered a lawsuit against the system. State Sen. John McComish, R-Awhatukee Foothills, said the matching funds actually stifled him in a 2008 primary. When an independent group spent $5,000 to help McComish, his opponents got matching funds. Then other independent groups paid for campaign mailers for the opponents, triggering matching funds for the other opponents to further promote themselves.
McComish figures opponents got $35,000 in matching funds. His instinct was to raise money to compete. He didn’t because that would trigger more funding for his opponents.
“You’ve got one hand tied behind your back and the other one is broken,” McComish said. “I was seriously outspent and could do nothing about it. They don’t have to put any effort into it and they just automatically get the money.”
The Supreme Court struck down the matching funds June 27, stating the provision inhibited political speech.
The Citizens Clean Election Commission figures the ruling won’t deter candidates from taking public funding. About 50 percent of candidates did in 2010. As many as 66 percent have in other elections, said Mike Becker, voter education manager.
“The biggest issue and idea the public needs to know is that Clean Elections is still here,” Becker said. “The ruling by the Supreme Court simply said we won’t have matching funds.”
But that could change. The Legislature approved a November 2012 ballot measure that would de-fund Clean Elections.
Querard wants to prepare for that with his fund.
The Arizona Conservative Club will vet candidates and then seek donations from like-minded donors through the state. He notes the irony in conservatives benefiting so much from public funding because they’re philosophically against it.
“I’m torn,” he said. “I think that ideologically I could be opposed. As a practical matter I could be grateful for what it has helped us to do but the Lord doesn’t make mistakes and it was there while it was there.”
McComish is cautious in saying a lack of public funding will help moderates over time.
“They didn’t predict this kind of outcome, that we’d end up with more and farther-right conservatives,” he said. “I don’t think anybody did, so we have to be careful about our predications.”
The effects of the court ruling may not be as large as some anticipate, said Jennifer Steen, an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. While public financing has increased political viewpoints, minorities and women in elections, she doesn’t anticipate significantly fewer candidates will run. Steen figures most people bitten by the political bug will run regardless of fundraising potential. She dismissed the notion Democrats stand to gain much.
“An alternative scenario that is not good for the Democrats is that the social conservatives lose more Republican primaries,” Steen said. “The Republican nominees are moderate candidates, and in the handful of districts in Arizona that are competitive, Republicans can do even better because their candidate would be closer to the center.”
Any impacts from the court ruling could be clouded by legislative districting in 2012. If districts are more competitive, that will prove more significant.
“This is going to be a really tough one to evaluate, even in hindsight,” Steen said.
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