The Magazine

Fundraising Arizona

We've just seen the future of campaign finance reform, and it's not pretty.

Dec 2, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 12 • By CLINT BOLICK
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ON NOVEMBER 6, when most Americans were awakening to Republican electoral triumphs, Arizonans learned that they had bucked the trend by electing a left-wing Democrat as governor. What produced Janet Napolitano's victory over GOP candidate Matt Salmon in a state with a 3-2 Republican registration advantage was not issues or personalities, but the nation's most ambitious scheme for the public funding of election campaigns--a harbinger of liberal plans for remaking the nation's political landscape.

The future of campaign finance reform is playing out in Arizona, and so far the results are ugly. In 1998, Arizona voters approved by a vote of 51-49 percent the Clean Elections Act, ostensibly to remove special-interest influence from politics by offering campaign subsidies to candidates for state office. The recent campaign--the first statewide election under the Clean Elections regime--proved to be anything but clean or divested of special-interest pressures.

The act skews the political playing field sharply in favor of subsidized candidates. Those who wish to run with subsidies must collect a specified number of five-dollar contributions, ranging from 200 for state legislative candidates to 4,000 for candidates for governor. Once they meet this requirement, subsidized candidates receive a specified allotment for the primary and general elections; and beyond that are matched dollar-for-dollar for campaign spending and independent expenditures by unsubsidized opponents, up to three times a base amount that varies according to the office. Candidates opting out of public subsidies, meanwhile, are subject to a contribution limit of $720 per donor for the primary and general election combined.

Salmon, a former congressman who honored his term limit pledge, refused to accept campaign subsidies. "I have advocated all my life personal responsibility and less government," he explained, so "it would be hypocritical for me to take taxpayer money for my campaign."

But Napolitano, who served as one of Anita Hill's lawyers during the confirmation battle over U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, had no such qualms. As the Arizona Republic reported, Napolitano deployed labor union minions to collect the requisite 4,000 five-dollar contributions, then sat back and watched millions in taxpayer subsidies roll in.

Salmon first had to fight a primary against two subsidized opponents. He emerged victorious but broke, with many of his contributors already maxed out under the $720 limit. Napolitano, by contrast, picked up a check for $615,000 from the state the day after the primary, over and above the public funding she had already received during the primary.

The public funds jump-started Napolitano's campaign. While Salmon painstakingly scavenged to replenish his coffers with help from President Bush, his opponent had the airwaves to herself. She used the opportunity to portray herself as a moderate and Salmon as an extremist.

To help bridge the gap, the state Republican party made $200,000 in independent expenditures on behalf of Salmon--but that money was matched dollar-for-dollar by additional subsidies to Napolitano. At the same time, the Democratic party, funded lavishly by developer and state chairman David Peterson, pumped $700,000 into negative expenditures against Salmon--money that did not count toward Napolitano's limit.

For the primary and general election together, Napolitano received a total of $2.25 million in taxpayer subsidies. She outspent Salmon by nearly $1 million. The funding disparity was exacerbated by the enormous investment of time and money--twenty-five cents out of every dollar raised--that Salmon had to make in raising money through voluntary contributions.

A third candidate, the independent Richard Mahoney, collected $1.7 million in taxpayer dollars, to win 7 percent of the vote--or 20 taxpayer dollars per vote. Mahoney plowed his subsidies into attack ads, including one implying that Salmon, a Mormon, would be soft on polygamy and another accusing Napolitano of being soft on homosexual pedophiles. The East Valley Tribune characterized the negative advertising blitz waged by Napolitano and Mahoney as a "tax-funded mud pit."

The funding disparity between Napolitano and Salmon was compounded by draconian requirements imposed by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which has jurisdiction over both subsidized and unsubsidized candidates. Ironically, the reporting requirements are more stringent for those forsaking public funds, who by the end of the campaign must report their spending on a daily basis. Not only do the hopelessly complex and subjective reporting rules entail large administrative costs for unsubsidized candidates, they also tip off opponents to campaign strategy.