New contribution limits could be game-changer for campaigns

Jeremy Duda//April 19, 2013

New contribution limits could be game-changer for campaigns

Jeremy Duda//April 19, 2013

Arizona campaign contribution limits Campaign cash may come pouring into some of Arizona’s top races next year thanks to a new law allowing candidates to raise far more money.

HB2593 raises the state’s campaign contribution limits, which are among the lowest in the country, to match the federal limits of $2,500 for both the primary and general election cycles. A provision in the Clean Elections Act that reduces contribution limits by 20 percent means candidates can now collect up to $4,000 from one contributor.

Individuals will no longer be restricted to a total of $6,930 in contributions per election cycle, allowing big contributors to take full advantage of the higher limits.

And the bill both raises the amount political committees can give to campaigns and eliminates the cap on the total amount of PAC money that candidates can accept per cycle. Currently, legislative candidates are restricted to $14,688 in PAC contributions each election cycle, and statewide candidates are limited to $91,040.

Critics say the bill will flood campaigns with more money and influence-buying, and that it may be the final nail in the coffin of Arizona’s voter-approved Clean Elections system, which was already in decline because of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission striking down the system’s matching funds provision. Clean Elections supporters are threatening a legal challenge to HB2593.

A small universe

Supporters of the higher limits say it will allow people to exercise their rights to support candidates and eliminate contribution limits that may be unconstitutionally low under a 2006 Supreme Court ruling. In the aftermath of Citizens United, candidates often become spectators in their own races as independent expenditures spend fortunes, supporters say, and the higher limits will reduce the influence of outside groups and give candidates more control over their campaigns.

Sam Wercinski, executive director of the liberal Arizona Advocacy Network, said special interests from in and out of Arizona will now have the ability to exert far more influence over campaigns. Anyone from gubernatorial candidates to school board members can now take up to $4,000 from a contributor, Wercinski said.

“There are working Arizona voters who could never write a check for $5,000. Now their political speech is being muffled because of these large sums of money coming in. So whose political speech is being hampered now?” Wercinski said.

Bruce Merrill, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said the biggest benefit will be for the people who are already the big spenders in elections.

“It makes the bigger, more powerful groups bigger and more powerful,” Merrill said.

But many politicos said most candidates won’t raise much more than they’ve raised in the past. Even with Arizona’s low limits, most legislative candidates don’t get many maximum contributions, and there’s only a limited amount of money to go around.

Republican political consultant Bert Coleman said there are only so many people who are willing to give maximum contributions. And many candidates aren’t strong fundraisers to begin with, he said, meaning they won’t be able to take advantage of the higher limits.

“There is a very small universe of maxed-out donors,” Coleman said.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, who sponsored HB2593, said most people don’t give the maximum amount now.

“What percentage of those people are really going to go from 400 to 2,000?” he asked.

The sweet spot

With Arizona’s statewide offices up for election next year, many are contemplating which candidates will get the most out of the new limits. On the Republican side, many believe gubernatorial hopefuls Doug Ducey and Scott Smith will have the greatest ability to attract big donors, along with Sen. Michele Reagan in the secretary of state’s race.

Potential secretary of state hopeful Jon Hulburd and attorney general candidate Felecia Rotellini are viewed by some as the biggest beneficiaries of the new limits on the Democratic side, and possibly gubernatorial hopeful Fred DuVal as well.

“The degree to which it’s good for them is relative to the quality of their Rolodex,” Republican consultant Constantin Querard said of 2014 candidates.

While Coleman doesn’t think many candidates will raise much more than they have in the past, he said the new limits will have a major impact in certain races, primarily the most competitive ones. And the candidates who are already the best fundraisers are going to be able to raise more money.

Due to the small number of competitive legislative districts in Arizona, few general election races for the House and Senate are competitive. But those are the races where candidates will benefit most from the higher limits, Coleman said.

“I expect to see a lot more money in certain candidate campaigns next year,” he said.

Democratic consultant Bill Scheel said the biggest beneficiaries will be “pro-business” Republicans in competitive races, such as Senate Majority Leader John McComish.

“That’s where I expect the money to flow,” Scheel said. “That’s the sweet spot.”

Gaining greater influence

Many expect the new rules for PACs to have a far greater impact. Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry President and CEO Glenn Hamer, whose organization has spent years pushing for the elimination of the aggregate cap on PAC contributions, called the new law a “game-changer.”

“We work hard. We’re one of the 20 or 30 or so super PACs in the state. And then we make a decision on a candidate to support and we get a check back in the mail because they’ve been PACed out. We don’t see how that’s fair,” said Hamer, whose chamber is a major player in Arizona elections.

Hamer said the new PAC rules will give the chamber, as well as other groups on both sides of the partisan aisle, greater influence in elections.

Hamer and other supporters of the new limits, such as Gov. Jan Brewer, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, McComish and Mesnard said they believe the higher limits will help reduce the influence of independent expenditures.

Mesnard, R-Chandler, pointed to McComish’s race against Democrat Janie Hydrick last year.  Independent expenditure groups backed by unions and other Democratic interests spent more than $300,000 in their attempt to elect Hydrick, while McComish had more than $200,000 in IE help.

With higher limits for both individuals and PACs, Mesnard said much of that money would’ve flowed directly to Hydrick and McComish instead of to IEs.

“I think it will have some effect, but I don’t think it’s going to have a huge effect, except where I hope it does, which is in those competitive races where IEs are spending 10 times what the candidates spend. That’s my hope. I certainly hope it does have an impact in those areas,” Mesnard said.

McComish, R-Phoenix, said IEs won’t go away under the new limits. But they will give candidates more control over their races and siphon money that would have gone to outside groups.

“I think in the more contested races, I believe we’ll see the candidates themselves raising more money. And I believe that some of that will be at the expense of independent expenditures in races that are hotly contested,” he said.

But many politicos said the new limits won’t do anything to dull the effect of independent expenditures.

Todd Lang, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said independent expenditures are just as prolific in other states with higher contribution limits.

“I have not seen any data to support that,” Lang said.

Coleman agreed. After all, he said, IEs can raise unlimited funds and are a popular way to put out attack ads that candidates may be hesitant to run themselves. And many contributors like to remain anonymous, he said, which they can’t do with contributions to candidate committees.

“There’s still a huge difference between a $25,000 contribution and a $2,500 contribution,” Coleman said.

A stake through the heart

The new limits may be a stake through the heart of the Clean Elections system. Participation has dropped sharply in the past two cycles, and even without the new limits, most observers expected it to continue dropping.

Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, said the new limits make it virtually impossible for candidates to run with public funding in competitive districts. Ableser, who has always used public funding in his races, said he sincerely doubts that he would’ve been able to win his races in the old Legislative District 17, which was more competitive than his current district, if his opponents had been able to raise money in $4,000 increments.

“It basically makes the Clean Elections system null and void,” Ableser said. “There’s no way Clean Elections can survive.”

Querard, who has many clients who have traditionally run with public financing, said many incumbents and candidates in noncompetitive races will still be able to win with Clean Elections funding. But the $38,133 from Clean Elections for legislative campaigns won’t be enough for many races.

“It certainly would reduce the effectiveness of running clean for an additional number of races, or at least additional numbers of circumstances,” Querard said.

Mesnard said the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on matching funds already undermined Clean Elections. His bill, he said, won’t make much of a difference.

“I think where you’ll see Clean Elections continue to be used … in those races that are maybe decided more in the primary or just races that aren’t all that competitive. I think that’s where you’re going to see it,” he said.

Changing balance of power

The Clean Elections system has been a boon for Tea Party-style conservatives who have grassroots appeal but have trouble raising money from business interests, such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that have traditionally been power brokers in GOP primaries. Between the loss of matching funds and the new campaign finance limits enshrined in HB2593, some expect the balance of power to swing back toward the chamber and the more moderate candidates it historically has backed.

GOP consultant Kyle Moyer said the business community’s ability to influence legislative elections will increase dramatically thanks to the new limits. “Fringe candidates” in both parties will find themselves at greater financial disadvantages in future elections, Moyer said.

“On the right, I think it’s the social conservatives to a certain degree, the hard right,” he said. “The days of the one-trick pony are numbered.”

While some critics view the new limits as an incumbent protection system, Moyer said the new limits may actually encourage challengers to some incumbent lawmakers.

“This new statute would encourage an outside, business-friendly candidate to potentially challenge an incumbent. I think that’s evident, or will be evident, on both sides of the aisle,” Moyer said.