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Independent committees now have blank-check power

Without additional campaign cash to fend off better-funded opponents, some Clean Elections candidates will be in dire need of help from their allies.

Ready to fill that role are independent expenditure committees, which now have the freedom to spend unlimited cash on candidates this election season without triggering matching funds for their opponents.

The liberalization of those spending restrictions is a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling June 8 that blocked the state’s distribution of matching funds and its earlier ruling that lifted restrictions on corporations and labor unions.

“There’s no question that it is enhanced. We’re now looking at a landscape where candidates that are running Clean are very limited in terms of what they can spend, but all the rules on independent expenditures have been relaxed,” said Democratic lobbyist David Waid. “Now, I think, you match that, you pair that with the fact that there no longer is a penalty for that independent expenditure that previously was there in the form of matching funds and you’ve got kind of the perfect storm.”

Republican consultant Nathan Sproul said he is expecting the same trend.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that independent groups will be more active this cycle than what they have been for the last decade,” Sproul said. “Without the deterrent of matching funds, it makes all the sense in the world for independent groups to be much more robust than they’ve been in the past.”

Todd Lang, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said he doesn’t expect to see a rise in independent expenditures as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, but said they will have a far greater impact than they have since voters approved Arizona’s public campaign finance system in 1998. He said the probable weight they will carry in the election is an example of why the system should be left in place.

“You’re going to see nasty independent expenditures, nasty attack ads with dubious claims of the truth. And unlike in prior years, there will be no response or rebuttal. There will be no correction of the record,” Lang said.

Arizona Education Association President John Wright, whose group is a major contributor to Democratic candidates, said the lack of matching funds might lead some groups to seek out favored Clean Elections candidates who are in danger of being financially overwhelmed.

“We understand independent expenditure campaigns in a race where there is a Clean Elections candidate will not trigger matching funds. And obviously that makes a difference in campaign strategy,” Wright said.

Since the Supreme Court issued its matching funds ruling, most speculation and analysis surrounding its impact on elections has been focused on effects it will have in terms of individual candidates. Most notably, it shifts the financial balance of power in the governor’s race further toward businessman Buz Mills, who has already spent $2.3 million on his campaign and has said he is willing to spend “whatever it takes” to win the Republican primary.

His rivals, Gov. Jan Brewer and state Treasurer Dean Martin, are running publicly funded campaigns and will now get only their lump-sum disbursements of $707,000 instead of $2.1 million. Doug Cole, a spokesman for the Brewer campaign, said Mills and his spending power might encourage outside groups to get involved.

Brewer built a broad coalition that spent about $2.6 million in support of Proposition 100, a sales tax increase approved by voters in May. Some members, such as the Arizona Education Association, aren’t particularly supportive of Brewer, but with Brewer looking strong in recent polls, some might be eager to help maintain a place in the governor’s heart.

“She’s in an awfully good place in the Republican primary right now,” said public relations consultant Jason Rose, “and an independent expenditure effort, in my opinion, would be done for ingratiation reasons, not because it’s needed to change the outcome of the election.”

Martin, a potential target of pro-Brewer independent expenditures, said outside groups were probably going to spend money regardless, especially since Mills has already spent more than he or Brewer would have been matched for. But he’s not discounting the impact those expenditures could have on his and other races.

“I think it’ll mean that the IE activity will be more effective, but I don’t know necessarily that you’re going to see a substantial increase,” Martin said.

Republican consultant Constantin Querard doubts independent expenditures will be more prolific in 2010 than they’ve been in years past. Groups that fund independent expenditure committees may reallocate resources to focus on candidates who are vulnerable because they lost their matching funds, he said, but he doesn’t expect them to spend more than they otherwise would have.

“The groups that are going to do it were going to do it anyway. They always have,” he said.

Independent expenditures are usually far more active in the general election than they are in primary races, and Cole said the loss of matching funds may have the Republican and Democratic parties considering how much more of an impact they could have.

Waid said he expects party groups like the Democratic and Republican governors associations to play a more pronounced role.

“Whether it’s through the Republican Governors Association or the Democratic Governors Association, there’s clearly going to be a lot of money spent there,” Waid said.

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