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Without matching funds, fewer candidates using Clean Elections

For the first time since Arizona’s Clean Elections system went into effect more than a decade ago, participating candidates this year know if they get outspent by their privately funded opponent, they will not get additional money to make up the difference. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled the matching funds provision was unconstitutional. KJZZ’s Mark Brodie reports on how that change to the state’s public campaign finance system is impacting this year’s elections.

MARK BRODIE: Let’s start with some numbers. The participation rate in Clean Election has generally been in the mid-40 to 60 percent range. Two years ago, it was around 45 percent, when candidates didn’t know whether or not they’d get matching funds – they ended up not getting them. This year, less than 39 percent of primary candidates ran with Clean Elections -- and the vast majority of those that did were challengers.

STEVE VOELLER: I think the folks who are finding themselves in contested primaries may conclude that $18,000 or $20,000 is not enough.

BRODIE: That’s Steve Voeller, the President of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court striking down matching funds. He predicts candidates afraid of being outspent will lead to fewer of them using Clean Elections. But, that view is not universally shared.

TODD LANG: What we’re hearing from folks is that a lot of people in both parties regret running traditionally because they found it much harder out there to raise money than they anticipated.

BRODIE: Todd Lang is the Executive Director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which administers the system. To qualify, candidates have to collect a certain number of five dollar contributions, and then agree not to take any outside money. Lang doesn’t think the participation rates will go down, and predicts they may actually go up -- which brings us to the three-way race for the two house seats from legislative district eleven. The GOP-leaning district stretches from Maricopa to Oro Valley, and may illustrate the divergent views on Clean Election’s future -- as well as its present.

STEVE SMITH: Certainly the money helped me the first time around, I wouldn’t have taken it if it didn’t, you know, of course it did. But, I’m also glad I’m able to raise it independently, too.

ADAM KWASMAN: I find it a moral obligation to ensure that those who want to support me can support me on a volunteer basis.

DAVE JOSEPH: It was the appeal of not having to spend my time trying to raise funds, trying to call everybody, be beholden to people. I could be my own person.

BRODIE: Meet the three candidates: in order, Republicans Steve Smith and Adam Kwasman and Democrat Dave Joseph. Kwasman and Joseph are both making their first runs for office. Smith is finishing his first term in the state senate. He used Clean Elections to win that seat, and credits the money with helping him win.

SMITH: You know, as a new candidate, it’s hard, unless you come from a wealthy background, or unless you have a lot of contacts. Frankly, it was one of the only ways I thought I could actually get in it.

BRODIE: But, despite that, Smith says he always knew he wouldn’t use Clean Elections this time. Adam Kwasman, who’s running on a ticket with Smith, says he never considered using what he calls “candidate welfare.”

KWASMAN: You don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to run for office in this state. You only have to raise enough money to get your voice out there, knock on the doors, do your job as a candidate. And, if your message is correct, and you fight for prosperity, you will win, I guarantee it.

BRODIE: For his part, Dave Joseph says he never considered running without Clean Elections. He’s received about $14,000 for the primary, and about $21,000 for the general election.

JOSEPH: After doing the advertising plan, I think I could use more, to get a basic level of frequency, in these type of publications and the media that’s available to me. But, again, the hand I’ve been dealt, and I’m just going to maximize it the best I can.

BRODIE: According to campaign finance reports, Joseph and Kwasman have had about the same amount of money with which to work -- Smith has raised a bit less. But, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Steve Voeller says “traditionally funded” candidates can still raise cash.

VOELLER: As is the case since before Clean Elections passed, and even during and up to today, people will write checks out of their own pocket to support a candidate for office.

BRODIE: Both of the “traditionally” funded candidates in this district say that’s been their experience. Smith says it’s easier to raise money when people know who you are, and how you’ve voted. And, his case is not unique. The Clean Elections Commission’s Todd Lang says lots of challengers “run clean,” but decide not to when running for re-election.

LANG: They use it to get into office. In fact, some of our harshest critics used it to get into office. Once they’re in office, the lobbyists suddenly want to give them money. And, now that they can get money from lobbyists, they no longer want to run clean, which of course is their prerogative, and that’s fine.

BRODIE: Lang says it’s actually a testament to the way the system works that candidates who oppose public campaign financing -- use it.