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Traditional races rising as ‘Clean Elections’ candidates dwindle

Since the passage of the Citizens Clean Election Act in 1998, a significant number of people have run for office with public funding — and many have won. Clean Elections changed the face of Arizona politics, but with fewer people deciding to run with public money, we may be poised for another big shift.

In 2008, 120 candidates participated in Clean Elections; 107 did in 2010. So far this year, only 48 candidates have opted to run with public money. Even with an anticipated increase as more people file to run, it is clear that there is a steady and significant decline in participating candidates, with more candidates choosing instead to run traditional campaigns reliant on private individual donations.

This change results from two key factors. First, last year’s U.S.

Supreme Court decision to invalidate matching funds participating candidates received when their privately funded opponents outspent them. This severely limited the amount of money participating candidates could receive. Second, the recent redistricting process shook up many legislative districts. Some districts became more competitive, while the boundaries of many altered, meaning incumbents can be less reliant on voters’ familiarity with their names. Many have to introduce themselves to a fundamentally altered constituency — and that costs money.

But where will the money come from? Contribution limits mean the donor pool would need to expand for campaigns to be able to reach the same level of money raised as candidates in years past. With the economy continuing to stagnate and a high number of competitive federal races vying for donors’ attention, more legislative candidates this year will be fighting over less money.

And then there’s the issue of campaign staff. Dialing for dollars and hosting fundraising events mean traditional candidates need staff support — whether it is volunteer or paid. But the increased number of traditional candidates and more competition from those federal races means there are not enough qualified fundraisers to go around. This leaves candidates in a tough spot — trying to raise more money than ever before from a fixed donor pool, all with less support.

It might seem that the obvious solution to these challenges would be for candidates to abandon their traditional efforts and participate in Clean Elections. But for many, this is simply not an option.

Independent groups looking to spend money in this year’s legislative races are more likely to invest in candidates who have proved their viability by raising their own money and running smart campaigns. And with the removal of matching funds, participating in Clean Elections can put you at an instant spending disadvantage.

In the long term, it remains to be seen whether more candidates will return to funding their campaigns with public money. This year however, candidates who can successfully appeal to the limited pool of donors and staff will fare well. Those who can’t may fail — even if they have what it took to be successful in previous years.

— Catherine Alonzo is a founding partner of Javelina, a full-service public affairs and direct-mail consulting firm based in Phoenix.

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