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Tight primary races put focus on halt to Clean Elections funding matches

David Lujan, shown in his state House of Representatives office in 2009, says a little extra money would have helped in his race for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. A publicly funded candidate, Lujan lost narrowly to traditionally funded candidate Felicia Rotellini. A U.S. Supreme Court injunction in June halted matching funds Lujan and other Clean Elections candidates would have received. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Alyson Zepeda)

David Lujan, shown in his state House of Representatives office in 2009, says a little extra money would have helped in his race for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. A publicly funded candidate, Lujan lost narrowly to traditionally funded candidate Felecia Rotellini. A U.S. Supreme Court injunction in June halted matching funds Lujan and other Clean Elections candidates would have received. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Alyson Zepeda)

David Lujan lost the Democratic primary for attorney general by 2,427 votes, less than 1 percent of all ballots cast in the race.

With such a narrow loss, another disparity comes into focus: Felecia Rotellini’s $136,000 fundraising edge.

Lujan ran as a Clean Elections candidate, which limited him to $220,000. Rotellini didn’t.

Until June, Clean Elections candidates could count on matching funds to make up such deficits and level the playing field. Now matching funds are on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers the issue.

For Lujan, the extra $20,000 to $100,000 he would have been eligible for in matching funds could have bought more statewide mailers. In a race that close, he said, it could have amounted to additional votes.

“In hindsight, more money, among other things, could have closed the gap,” Lujan said.

A lack of matching funds was key in Andrew Thomas’ 899-vote loss to Tom Horne in the GOP primary for attorney general, according to Jason Rose, Thomas’ spokesman.

“Any time you lose by 800 votes, you question the things you did,” Rose said. “With respect to Mr. Horne, without the extraordinary involvement of the Supreme Court, we don’t think the race would have been close.”

Todd Lang, executive director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said losing matching funds took away the chance for publicly funded candidates to respond when outspent by opponents.

“It’s a real shame on First Amendment grounds that candidates had a disadvantage in getting their message out,” he said.

Voters approved Clean Elections in 1998 by a narrow margin. Participating candidates must collect $5 pledges to demonstrate support before they become eligible for public funding.

The money comes from a surcharge on civil and criminal penalties, not taxpayers.

The Goldwater Institute challenged matching funds on the basis that they punish candidates who exercise their First Amendment right to share their views by triggering funds for a rival candidate.

“Matching funds deter people,” said Nick Dranias, lead attorney in the lawsuit and director for the Goldwater Institute’s Center of Constitutional Government.

A district court judge agreed with Dranias. The decision, however, was taken to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed it. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened in June, issuing an injunction until the justices decide whether or not to hear the case.

The high court won’t decide before the general election even whether to take up the case.

Jennifer Steen, assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies, said it’s worth questioning the impact the injunction had in the primary and will have in the general election.

“It’s a valid question when you have margins that close,” she said. “But there’s no way you can ever really know.”

Still, the Rotellini campaign said it stands by its decision to not take public financing. Dave Cieslak, communications director for Rotellini, said the decision to run as a traditionally funded candidate was an easy one. “In order to run a robust, successful campaign you need to raise money,” he said.

Many thought the matching funds injunction was a death knell for Gov. Jan Brewer, who faced self-financed and well-funded candidate Buz Mills. It wasn’t until the governor signed SB 1070 that she experienced a surge in the polls, causing her two biggest opponents to bow out of the race.

Both Brewer and Democratic opponent Terry Goddard are Clean Elections candidates.

In the Republican primary for attorney general, Thomas received an initial $224,000 in public financing, The latest reports list Horne as having raised $557,000 and having spent a little over $400,000 in the primary.

Rose said Thomas chose to run as a Clean Elections candidate, because it’s “the law of the land” in Arizona. He added that many candidates opted to run on public financing for this election cycle.

Asked at his victory news conference if he felt he had an advantage in facing a Clean Elections candidate in the primary, Horne declined to comment.

According to Lang with the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, had the injunction not been in place Thomas would have been eligible for at least an additional $160,000 in matching funds.

Clean Elections candidate Barbara Leff, a state senator, faced a more difficult challenge in her bid to receive the Republican nomination for treasurer. Lang pointed out that businessman Doug Ducey, who ran against Leff, raised four times as much as Leff’s Clean Elections disbursement of $91,645.

Several calls and e-mails to Leff’s office seeking comment weren’t returned.

The issue also affects legislative races. State Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, who is a Clean Elections candidate, faces a Democrat, Justin Johnson, who has raised more than five times as much as Gray’s disbursement of $21,000.

Gray isn’t deterred but said the extra matching funds would have been helpful.

“They would allow me to respond more to his hit pieces she said,” adding that Johnson has yet to release any.

Lang said he expects the Supreme Court to hear the case sometime next spring. Until then, publicly financed candidates will have to do without the promise of matching funds in this general election.

“It’s a real shame voters won’t get the whole message because candidates are limited,” Lang said.

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