Local political consultants and operatives disagree on what effect the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the matching funds component of Arizona’s public campaign finance option will have on politics.
The prevailing wisdom is that the loss of matching funds will make public campaign financing less attractive to candidates, who, in the coming elections, will tend to be more moderate in their leanings or at least willing to appeal to moderate interest groups and people for political contributions.
But, that sentiment isn’t exactly shared by some political observers — both Democrat and Republican — who are mindful that the final word is always left to voters, and aware that the state’s
13-year public campaign finance history has created veteran campaign consultants capable of waging competitive races cheaply.
Republican lobbyist and consultant Marc Osborn, who lobbies the Legislature on behalf of business interests like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he expects to see a strengthened link between interest groups and candidates, who will be forced to appeal to a broader spectrum.
“I think it will also reduce negative campaigning,” said Osborn, who aided the matching funds lawsuit by contributing campaign spending research. “If you are going to wage ugly attacks on your opponents with private money, many donors may not be crazy about those ads.”
Combined with the pending redistricting process expected to reap more competitive districts, Osborn said the price of political campaigns in some districts will likely rise in the near future.
And, it is that cost — and the loss of available matching funds — that will prompt more would-be candidates and their recruiting political parties to realistically evaluate their chances, said Republican lobbyist Lee Miller, also an experienced election law attorney.
“Matching funds was, without a doubt, a motivating factor for parties to recruit candidates,” he said. “You’re saying, ‘you don’t have to worry about fundraising. Clean Elections will do that for you.’ Now, you’re going to have to think a little harder and a little longer about whether you have what it takes to win.”
The result: fewer “protest” candidates with a dizzying variety of pet policy goals and a renewed push for “consensus-orientated” lawmakers eager to help address broad shared interests like the state budget, Miller said.
But, to that effect, candidates will still “have to be right on the issues that are important to voters in November of even numbered years.”
Conventional wisdom has been that Clean Elections has been a boon to conservative candidates who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to raise enough money to wage viable campaigns. Many observers predicted that the end of matching funds will eliminate many of those candidates, leading to a more moderate Republican Legislature.
But Democratic consultant Bill Scheel, currently an aide to Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, disputed that logic. Clean Elections originally empowered a faction of very conservative legislative candidates who used the system to get elected without access to traditional Republican funding sources, he said. But now that those conservatives have built up their political infrastructure and support networks, Scheel expects them to carry on without public funding.
“The cat is already out of the bag, I guess. So I don’t know that removing Clean Elections at this time doesn’t really change the landscape as much as it kind of locks it into place,” he said.
And Scheel said the remaining provisions of Clean Elections will still give the “protest” candidates an incentive to run for office. “I can still see candidates who are in noncompetitive districts or in noncompetitive primaries using Clean Elections. It’s useful, potentially, for candidates who just want to have their 15 minutes,” he said.
Ironically, consultant Joe Yuhas, of the marketing and consulting firm Riester, predicted that the end of Clean Elections’ lynchpin will actually result in cleaner elections. Yuhas said some candidates have become adept at gaming the system and using Clean Elections to hire relatives, wage extremely negative smear campaigns and engage in other campaign shenanigans.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, Yuhas said, will undercut people who abuse the system.
“Candidates on both sides of the aisle have been able to dime the system,” Yuhas said. “This does help responsible candidates who have sought public office raising dollars from contributors.”
Yuhas also predicted that the ruling would spur more changes in Arizona’s campaign finance laws, starting with its contribution limits, which are among the lowest in the country.
“I think we’re about to enter into an evolutionary time where several efforts will be made to examine our election process,” he said.
Russell Smoldon, a lobbyist for Arizona utility giant Salt River Project, downplayed expectations that the state Legislature, which has become regarded as sharply divided among partisan lines, is in line for a makeover.
Initial cash payouts to candidates from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission are still enough to wage viable campaigns in many, if not most districts, said Smoldon, who also manages a political action committee that contributed tens of thousands of dollars to privately funded candidates each election year.
He noted that campaign reforms like public campaign financing and independent redistricting were originally predicted to also have a moderating effect on the tone of state politics.
Smoldon pointed at low voter turnout as the reason for the election of hyper-partisan officeholders, particularly in primary elections when turnout is dominated by extremely committed voters.
“The bigger problem than Clean Elections is that nobody votes in the primary,” he said. “In three-quarters of these races, the winner of the primary will be the winner in the general.”