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Top GOP lawmakers forming campaign committees separate from state party

Top Republican leaders in the House and Senate have created independent campaign committees aimed at electing Republican lawmakers and raising money outside the state Republican Party structure.

House Speaker Kirk Adams said he helped organize an independent expenditure committee named Republican House Victory, which was formed officially on May 13.

Senate President Bob Burns is the architect of the Republican Senate Victory Committee, which was registered with the Secretary of State on May 21.

Steve Twist, a longtime Republican operative, will be the chairman of the House committee, according to Secretary of State records. A former chairman of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Twist also worked at the Attorney General’s Office under Bob Corbin in the 1980s. Right now, he is vice president and general counsel at Services Group of America in Scottsdale.

The Senate committee is chaired by Steve Tully, a corporate attorney and one-time House majority leader. He served as a lawmaker from 2001 through 2006. Tully is also the District 11 Republican chairman.

Both committees list Hieu Tran as treasurer. She works for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Adams and Burns said the goal of the committees would be to elect Republicans to the Legislature.

“The most successful caucuses around the country raise money for their caucuses,” Adams said.

The committees will be separate from the Arizona Republican Party, which historically has raised funds to support Republican candidates at all levels. Party spokesman Matt Roberts said the party was unaware of the committees Adams and Burns were forming.

However, both legislative leaders said they had spoken with Arizona Republican Party Chairman Randy Pullen about the committees. Pullen was attending a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Washington D.C., as was Brett Mecum, the party’s executive director.

Pullen said the state Republican Party has given its blessing to the committees, which he said he was told about in February.

“The benefit to it is, it’s similar to what they have in other states. They get their own members committed to raising funds on their behalf, which is a good thing,” Pullen said.

Burns said the committees would “take some of the load off the state party” in legislative races. He said the intention was not to replace the state Republican Party, which he said will be freed up to register voters and increase turnout on Election Day.

“Separate from, but in concert with, is the way I would like to believe it will work,” Burns said.

Other states have similar committee structures in place, with the leaders of the various legislative caucuses tasked with raising funds to support their members and expand their ranks and influence.

Sean McCaffrey saw the impact caucus campaign committees can have on elections while he was political director for the Washington State Republican Party in 2002. McCaffrey, a political consultant and former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, said the legislative committees and the state party worked together effectively in Washington.

He said one tangible impact may be stronger relationships between the state party and the politicians.

“With these legislator-driven caucuses, you’re very likely to see a much more integrated, united and cohesive party working together here in Arizona.  That’s a very good thing, a very welcome thing, and a something that bodes very ill for the folks across the aisle,” McCaffrey said.

At one time, Arizona had caucus committees. But stringent campaign finance laws enacted in the early 1990s, after the AzScam scandal, dramatically changed things.

Kevin DeMenna, a veteran lobbyist and former Republican staff member in the Senate, said longtime House Majority Leader Burton Barr’s committee to elect House Republicans wielded tremendous influence in the 1970s and 1980s.

“You didn’t have fundraisers. You contributed to a leadership PAC, and that individual made subsequent donations to people that he felt warranted his support,” DeMenna said.

Twist said the committees are planning a large fundraiser in the coming months. Details hadn’t been finalized, but he said it would occur by late July. Adams said the committees would hold several fundraisers this year.

Other details that have yet to be finalized include determining how many legislative races the committees will target and how much money a successful independent expenditure campaign will require.

Fundraising could be one of the biggest challenges for the caucus committees. State law limits the aggregate amount of political contributions individuals can make during a calendar year. For 2009 and 2010, individuals can give $5,850 per year. That cap includes all money given directly to candidates and political committees such as the ones being created by the House and Senate.

In contrast, registered political parties are not subject to the individual contribution limits because they are not allowed to contribute directly to candidates or spend money on an individual candidate’s campaign. In past years, some individual donors to both the Republican and Democratic state parties have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That fundraising ability is what separates state parties from other committees and makes it incredibly difficult for caucus committees to be successful under today’s laws, DeMenna said.

“There’s nothing that can be created that allows someone to write a six-figure check to an entity and then spend six figures in a race,” he said.

However, one potential change in campaign finance laws could yield an advantage to independent expenditure committees such as the ones Adams and Burns formed. Last year, a federal judge said a portion of the state’s public campaign finance system could be ruled unconstitutional.

In October, Judge Roslyn Silver said a provision of Clean Elections Act that increases funding given to publicly funded candidates when privately funded opponents raise money above set limits “imposes a substantial burden on the First Amendment right to use personal funds for campaign speech.” The additional funding, known as matching funds, also applies to money spent in support of a privately funded candidate by an outside group.

The judge’s comments came as an explanation to a ruling in a lawsuit filed by Republican candidates seeking to halt the matching funds provision of Clean Elections. Silver denied the request because it was made in the midst of an election cycle, but concluded the plaintiffs had “shown a very strong likelihood of success on the merits” of their case against matching funds.

Many political observers expect the Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice, whose attorneys are challenging the matching funds, to succeed when Silver rules on the merits of the lawsuit. That could happen later this year.

If matching funds are not available for Clean Elections candidates next year, the impact independent expenditure committees can have on legislative races will no doubt increase. Under the existing Clean Elections system, independent expenditure campaigns in a race with publicly funded candidates can backfire, as they automatically give the candidate’s opponent a dollar-for-dollar increase in funding.

To combat that last year, groups either funded by or closely aligned with the Arizona Democratic Party poured more than $1.4 million into independent expenditure campaigns supporting Democrats and opposing Republicans in 21 races. By spending so much money, the publicly funded Republican candidates quickly reached their limit for matching funds.

But the abolition of those automatic funding increases would allow independent expenditure campaigns to influence legislative races with far less money because opposing candidates wouldn’t be compensated for the committee’s actions.

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