The day after Election Day, the good people at the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the nonpartisan group that is the pre-eminent source of data and analysis on who gives money to whom in politics, put out a press release with an apt title: "2004 Election Outcome: Money Wins."
Indeed, in the battle for Congress, the candidate with the largest wallet won 95 percent of all House races and 91 percent of all Senate races. For the House, where partisan gerrymandering has made it more likely for a member of Congress to leave office in a hearse than due to a lost election, this rate of impregnability was the same as in 2002. Almost one out of three House races were financially uncompetitive – that is, winners faced challengers who spent less than $5,000. For the Senate, 2004 also marked a real decline in competitiveness, as just 76 percent of all Senate races were won by the biggest spender in 2002. Top spenders also won open seat races nearly nine times out of 10, reported CRP.
But while overall campaign spending rose 30 percent in 2004, topping $4 billion – led by two presidential candidates who raised more than half a billion in private contributions – something quite different took place in the states that have enacted Clean Money/Clean Elections systems: More candidates than ever are running for office on a limited budget of full public financing. And the system is spreading.
Maine, Arizona Lead The Way
In Maine, a whopping 83 percent of the state Senate (29 out of 35) and 77 percent of the House (116 out of 151) will be made up of legislators who ran clean. This is an increase from 2002, when 77 percent of the Senate and 55 percent of the House was made up of legislators who participated in Clean Elections. Both major parties are heavily represented in this group: among Democrats, 15 incoming senators and 70 incoming House members ran clean; among Republicans, 14 incoming senators, and 42 incoming House members ran clean. It is now fair to say that in Maine, at least, the political norm is for candidates to refuse private contributions and instead rely solely on equal grants of public funds, which they qualify for by collecting a large number of $5 contributions at the beginning of their races.
In Arizona, a total of 46 candidates for the state legislature and corporation commission were elected running clean. All four of the winning candidates for corporation commission participated in Clean Elections. In addition, 58 percent of the members of the Arizona state house (35 of 60) and 23 percent of the state senate (seven of 30) ran clean. In both cases, this is an increase from 2002, when the House was 45 percent clean and the Senate 17 percent clean.
Clean Elections winners in Arizona were both Republicans and Democrats. All four winning corporations commissioners are Republicans, as are three incoming senators and 21 incoming House members. Among Democrats, four incoming senators and 14 incoming House members ran clean.
Both states are reporting other salutary effects. According to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the number of contested primaries in 2004 reached 39, up from 31 in 2002 and 25 in 2000. This is quite significant, since thanks to gerrymandering party primaries are often the most important site for expanding voter choice. All but two of those contested primaries included at least one Clean Elections candidate. The overall number of candidates in Maine's primaries was up 12 percent, giving voters many more choices.
In Arizona, the Clean Elections system not only has increased the diversity of the candidate pool, it has expanded public participation in the funding process itself. An analysis done by the Arizona Clean Elections Institute found that the pool of small donors who gave $5 qualifying contributions to gubernatorial candidates running in 2002 was far more diverse geographically, economically and ethnically than was the case for candidates relying on private contributions for their campaigns.
It will be a while before the final totals for spending on Maine and Arizona's elections are in, but if 2002 is any indication, it is likely that widespread reliance on the Clean Elections systems in both states will again show a tempering in overall campaign costs and a narrowing of the financial gap between challengers and incumbents.
More States Follow
The success of public financing in Maine and Arizona has contributed to the passage of similar systems in more states. This November, North Carolina became the first in the country to offer candidates for top judicial offices (Supreme Court and Court of Appeals) substantial public funding for their races. Two seats on the seven-member Supreme Court and three seats on the 15-member Court of Appeals were up for election. Both Supreme Court races and two of the three Court of Appeals seats were won by candidates who ran with public financing. In all, 12 of the 16 candidates running for the five seats participated in the public financing program.
Next November, New Jersey will start its experiment with Clean Elections, offering candidates in two competitive legislative districts the option of full public funding. And in 2006, candidates for the Public Regulation Commission in New Mexico, a powerful statewide body that oversees corporations, will be able to obtain full public funding for their races.
While the prospects for passing more reforms of the federal campaign system look slender right now, opportunities abound in the states. That's in part due to the hard work of local activists, aided by the inevitable scandals that arise under "pay-to-play" politics. For example, in Connecticut, the shakeup created by the resignation of scandal-plagued Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, who vetoed a Clean Elections bill a few years ago, has propelled more sympathetic advocates to leadership positions in the Connecticut House and Senate. And Republican Gov. Jodi Rell has demonstrated an openness to work with reformers as the state examines campaign finance and ethics-reform issues.
And last year in Hawaii, both chambers of the legislature voted in favor of public financing of elections – after three prior sessions when reform advocates saw legislation pass the House only to fail in the Senate. This time, the legislation stalled in the Senate/House committee and the bill never reached the governor's desk. However, advocates laid critical groundwork, unearthed concerns and formed new relationships that greatly increase the chance of success in the next session.
It takes time and steady organizing efforts to enact Clean Elections-style reform, and defenders of the status quo – many of whom profit greatly from it – are scarcely indifferent to this challenge to their power. But while the national headlines may seem discouraging, it's important to remember this essential fact about change in America – it always bubbles up from below.