When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of an Arizona campaign finance law last week, the court divided along ideological lines — with a five-justice conservative majority opposing the way Arizona uses public money to finance campaigns, and four liberals supporting it.
But in Arizona, the greatest beneficiaries of the state’s Clean Elections Act have been conservatives.
Consider newly elected state Sen. Steve Smith. A talent manager in exurban Phoenix who had never run for public office, Smith beat a better-known Democrat last year with the help of $36,000 in government funds he received under the law.
“Turns out, all I needed was that Clean Elections money and the grace of God,” Smith said. “It certainly put me where I am today.”
Conservative political neophytes like Smith have steadily taken over Arizona politics since voters passed the Clean Elections Act in 1998, a demonstration that the real-world effects of policy can defy partisan stereotypes. Now conservatives are scrambling to come up with new ways to finance challengers to the more centrist Republicans who once dominated state politics.
“That’s something that’s being lost in the reaction to this Supreme Court decision,” said Rudy Espino, a political scientist at Arizona State University. “This decision could actually help Democrats in the next election.”
Espino noted that conservatives — frequently those who favor a tough stance against illegal immigration — have steadily ousted incumbent Republicans in primaries over the years, which are dominated by party activists. Especially in legislative races, the winner of the GOP primary usually wins the election. That’s shifted Arizona’s politics strongly to the right.
“Clean Elections was one of those decisions that is an example of unintended consequences,” Espino said.
The law has helped some populist liberals win Democratic seats too. But since the Republican Party dominates state politics, the law has made its biggest effect by empowering more insurgent conservatives than anti-corporate lefties.
“The surprise is that it happened on the right,” said John McComish, a Republican state senator who was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case.
Backed by progressive reformers, the law came after a series of corruption scandals. It has two main facets.
First, the government distributes a set amount of money to candidates who get enough small donations to demonstrate their viability and who pledge to refrain from raising additional funds. Second, an independent commission can give candidates more of those public funds to match the spending of rivals who don’t abide by the Clean Elections pledge.
The Supreme Court majority struck down the matching funds provision but left the initial public financing intact. However, business groups in Arizona are pushing an initiative for the 2012 ballot that would eliminate the entire Clean Elections Act. The Clean Elections money comes from a surcharge added to criminal and civil penalties in court.
“If the whole system went away, both Democrats and Republicans would have to reach out to a broader spectrum of people,” said Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. “We would view that as a positive.”
Though they won a round of tax cuts this year, the chamber and other business groups have had a sometimes acrimonious relationship with the new crop of Republicans in the GOP-run Legislature. This year, business groups waged a furious lobbying campaign to successfully derail tough immigration bills pushed by Republicans in the Senate, including Smith.
In 2007, the Legislature passed a law dissolving businesses that repeatedly hire illegal workers, much to the business community’s alarm. Last year, Republican lawmakers opposed a ballot measure for a temporary sales tax increase that even Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and many business groups supported.
One of the architects of the conservative lock on the Arizona statehouse is political consultant Constantin Querard. Over the last decade, Querard recruited grass-roots conservatives to challenge established incumbents. The key, he said, was the Clean Elections Act.
“The average conservative, the person who was interested in limited government, did not have a Rolodex that allowed them to go out and raise $30,000, $40,000,” Querard said.
Querard stumbled on the solution in 2002, when a legislative seat opened in a solidly Republican Phoenix-area district. He viewed all the candidates in the GOP primary as too liberal. Three weeks before the filing deadline, he persuaded a homemaker named Colette Rosati to run, reassuring her that she would get state money if she rounded up enough backers. She won the primary, and an Assembly seat.
“If you can get a conservative competitive money against a liberal, the conservative wins,” Querard said. “The conservatives who don’t like Clean Elections love the Legislature Clean Elections gave them.”
Todd Lang, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, disputed the notion that the measure fueled Arizona’s conservative insurgency, noting that other factors, notably illegal immigration, played a major role. He said that the remaining part of the Clean Elections law — the seed money it provides candidates — will continue to have a significant effect by allowing nontraditional people to run for office.
“It’ll still play a vital role,” Lang said, “because it will give the voters more choices.”
As for Querard, he assumes it’s inevitable that the law will wither away following the Supreme Court decision. He is starting a group called the Arizona Conservative Club to collect small-dollar donations to replace the Clean Elections money. He’ll appeal to those who sign up to bundle together modest contributions to conservative candidates. Otherwise, he fears, the gains the movement has made will be rolled back.
“If you go back to the old way, logically, you go back to the old results,” Querard said.