A handful of Arizona Democrats running to replace incumbent Republicans in swing districts have high-minded aspirations of expanding the state’s Clean Elections program and limiting money in politics.
But before they can change government, they have to make it into government. And for candidates running in tough races, that means using traditional financing and accepting that the dark money they oppose on principle is going to be used in their campaigns.
In the Scottsdale-based Legislative District 23, Democratic Senate candidate Seth Blattman lists government reform as one of his three top priorities, up there with education and improving the state’s economy. And if he only had one term in office to get everything done, he said he would focus on the government reform measures, including expanding Clean Elections and strengthening government ethics laws – he said he believes systemic change to government will be the only way to ensure that education funding continues without Democrats in power.
As a candidate, Blattman is running with traditional financing, not Clean Elections funding, and is willing to accept campaign contributions from corporations and special interest groups. It’s a matter of practicality, he said.
“There’s no secret that the more money you have, the more you can spend on campaigning and getting your message out there,” Blattman said. “So, to play by a separate set of rules, handicapping your own self, would be self-defeating in the end. The goal is to get elected so we can actually make some substantial reforms to the system.”
To that end, he’s not too bothered when he sees outside groups, including ones that aren’t required to disclose their donors, intercede in the LD23 Senate race. One such group, Progress Arizona, has spent nearly $10,000 attacking incumbent Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita so far this cycle, according to campaign finance records filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
“As a principle, you know I’m against outside groups spending money on these races,” Blattman said. “In my particular race though, obviously I’m looking to win so I’m not upset when I see them advertising negative videos against Michelle Ugenti-Rita.”
Candidates from both parties running across the state have been the beneficiaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending, from state and national political action committees that do disclose their funding sources and from dark money groups that do not, but only one party has made it its mission to do away with dark money.
So far, the biggest Democratic outside spenders in Arizona legislative races have been Progress Arizona, a left-wing advocacy group that does not disclose its donors, and Forward Majority Action Arizona, the state-level branch of a political action committee whose national funders can be found in federal campaign finance records.
Retired Army Col. Felicia French, the Democrat running for the state Senate in northern Arizona’s Legislative District 6, and her Republican opponent, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers, are in the race that has drawn the most outside spending so far. Republican groups have spent more than $90,000 to attack French, who came within 600 votes of winning a spot in the state House in 2018.
Rogers, meanwhile, has been the target of more than $91,000 in critical outside spending, the vast majority of which came from conservative groups during her bitter primary battle with Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. Campaign finance records filed with the Secretary of State’s Office reflect roughly $5,000 spent against her by Forward Majority Action, but money Progress Arizona has spent since the primary on Facebook ads and websites set up to attack the Rogers campaign has not been reported.
French said she dislikes negative campaigning and outside spending in the race, but she has no control over what PACs and independent expenditure groups can do. Candidates are legally barred from coordinating with independent expenditure groups.
“Obviously I don’t have control if it’s from my party or somebody else just because they want to bring to light negative aspects about my opponent,” French said. “But I really don’t like it, of course, when it’s against me because none of it’s been true.”
If she wins election and gets to work on campaign finance legislation, French said she ideally would love to see mandatory Clean Elections funding for every candidate. Right now, candidates in contested races can’t afford to run with Clean Elections funding because their opponents are easily able to raise far more than the $18,121 for the primary and $27,182 for the general given to Clean Elections candidates.
“You’re riding a regular single speed bicycle while your opponent has a mini motorcycle or scooter,” French said. “There’s no way you can do that.”
She also wants greater transparency and disclosure of where campaign contributions come from and how they’re spent. French and her campaign treasurer include a detailed memo line with every campaign transaction that includes check numbers, store names and descriptions of items purchased for the campaign. None of that is required by law, but French described it as fastidiousness left over from her 32 years in the Army.
Overall, Democrats running in swing districts described an indifference to outside spending intended to help them or hurt their Republican opponents. Legislative District 17 Senate candidate Ajlan Kurdoglu, who regularly criticizes Republican incumbent Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, as being beholden to special interests and dark money, said he appreciated the support his own campaign has received from outside groups spending to help him or hurt Mesnard.
“Money in politics has gotten out of hand,” Kurdoglu said via text. “Unfortunately, the current majority in the AZ State Legislature neglected to take action to deal with this issue. Actually, they made it even more serious with their action. When I am in the Senate, with a Democratic majority I will work with everyone to solve this problem.”
So far, Forward Majority Action Arizona and Progress Arizona have spent more than $21,000 attacking Mesnard and Forward Majority and Save Our Schools Arizona have spent $11,000 to advocate for Kurdoglu’s election.
Mesnard said he accepts that he and legislative Democrats have different opinions on campaign finance, but he gets frustrated when people show selective outrage over money in politics
“When it’s benefiting their opponent, they’re all upset,” Mesnard said. “When they’re benefiting, they’re surprisingly muted — or maybe not really surprisingly, but they’re muted.”
In Legislative District 20, where outside groups aligned with Democrats have spent more than $50,000 attacking incumbent Republican Reps. Shawnna Bolick and Anthony Kern, Democratic candidate Judy Schwiebert said she’s only paying attention to her own campaign, not what else is happening in the race.
“I don’t know what other people are doing,” she said. “I’m trying to keep my head down and run my race, which is all about listening and working together to make sure that we’re getting things done.”