In 2010, the general election for attorney general in Arizona was a tight one. Republican Tom Horne had endured an expensive primary that left him financially weakened going into the general election against Democrat Felicia Rotellini, who proved to be a stronger than expected candidate.
Going into the last few weeks of the campaign, an independent expenditure group emerged to try to boost Horne’s candidacy. Business Leaders for Arizona spent $516,000 and, ultimately, Horne was able to beat back Rotellini’s strong campaign and emerge victorious on Election Day.
Any observer of Arizona politics knows what happened next. Horne and the independent expenditure committee that backed him were charged by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office with coordination and ordered to pay the money back or be fined several hundred thousand dollars.
Rotellini’s outside backers did not escape legal scrutiny either. The Committee for Justice and Fairness was charged by the County Attorney’s Office for different violations related to whether they were required to register as a political committee for their actions in support of Rotellini’s campaign.
Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of these violations, politicians, campaign finance reformers, and local newspapers are all calling for the Legislature to make changes in our campaign finance laws to crack down and stop all of this so-called “outside money” from influencing the outcome of our races.
They believe our laws are too weak. They think that if we only strengthen our laws, this type of spending will be limited and/or stop.
They are wrong.
Arizona’s statutes are littered with attempts to “reform” our campaign finance system and get the big money out of politics. As a result,
Arizona now has some of the lowest donations limits in the country.
So low, in fact, that candidates for state office often lack the resources to effectively get their message out.
One only needs to compare our donation limits for statewide office with those who are running for Congress.
A candidate for Congress can take up to $5,000 (primary and general) from an individual donor.
A candidate for attorney general or governor? $890.
Despite running in an election with nearly 90 percent more voters, our statewide candidates are limited to roughly one-fifth the amount of money from a donor than a candidate for Congress is.
This lack of money invites outside groups like those in the attorney general’s race.
Campaign finance reformers are naïve if they believe that these limits will actually get the money out of politics. They don’t. All they do is redirect it to outside groups who will spend it. And it’s only going to continue.
So what to do? We know the Arizona Legislature will be tempted to try to discourage and limit outside money with another series of misguided laws.
It’s time to recognize that Arizona’s long experiment with campaign finance reform has left our system in far worse shape than ever.
Legislators should ask themselves if this is the system they want for our state? A system dominated by outside money and special interests.
A system defined by a lack of transparency.
There is a way to fix it and it’s not more regulation.
Take the limits off of donations, or at a minimum significantly increase them with full and timely disclosure. Recognize that campaigns cost money and that it is far more desirable for the candidates to have this money than some outside group. Let the candidates speak for themselves.
Of course, you will never stop outside spending — even with more regulation. The U.S. Supreme Court has made that abundantly clear.
But you can limit its effect by increasing donation limits and instead direct at least some of that money to the candidates.
Outside money has come to dominate Arizona politics because the people and organizations behind this money have correctly surmised that most campaigns do not have the money themselves to get their message out in an effective way.
And it will only continue to grow unless the Legislature has the foresight to recognize why this is happening and act on it.
They need to recognize successful campaigns cost real money. Contrary to the beliefs of some reformers who want the money out of politics, you can’t win most campaigns by walking door to door or visiting your local Rotary group. It’s never been that way.
In 2013, the Legislature will be asked to do something about outside money. They will be tempted to take the politically expedient way out and try and conjure up new regulations. Doing so will make the politicians, reformers, and columnists feel good. But it will do very little to change things. It won’t limit the outside money that has come to dominate our political landscape here in Arizona.
Only removing donations limits or significantly increasing them so that candidates will be able raise enough money to run their campaigns will do that.
— Chris Baker, owner, BluePoint, a Republican political consulting firm based in Scottsdale.