If a definition of news is something that hasn’t happened before, readers of the New York Times may be excused for wondering why the paper featured a front-page story on June 8 on the travails of a Senate candidate from Oregon who spends hours a day cold-calling rich strangers to ask them to contribute to his campaign. There’s nothing new about the terrible, time-consuming need for candidates to curry favor with the donor class; readers may recall Caleb Rossiter’s first-person account of the numbing effects of fundraising for his 1998 Congressional campaign.
The real news story is in Arizona and Maine, where Clean Elections laws provide public funding for candidates who avoid fat-cat donors. In those states more than 300 candidates for everything from governor to state assembly are proving their political worth not by the size of their campaign war chests but by their ability to attract the requisite number of $5 contributors to qualify for public money. Participation rates have nearly doubled compared with 2000, when Clean Elections systems had their first run. In Arizona more than 80 percent of the statewide candidates are participating in Clean Elections–including seven of eight major candidates for governor and nearly half the legislature contenders. In Maine two gubernatorial candidates, a Republican and a Green Independent, have been certified for Clean Elections funding, along with 206 so far of 375 candidates for the state legislature.
In the past few years the determined organizing of dozens of state coalitions, led by Public Campaign in Washington, has chipped away at the belief that we’ll never get the special-interest money out of politics. Adding new force to that effort, Senator John McCain, the country’s most prominent campaign reform advocate, recently announced his support for his home state’s Clean Elections system. In ads paid for by the Arizona Clean Elections Institute, McCain says: “Clean Elections works well to overcome the influence of special interests. It gives Arizonans the power to create good government. Keep supporting Clean Elections.”
McCain’s move has a significant local context: Right-wingers and business interests are trying to undermine his state’s pioneering system. Clint Bolick has set up a state satellite of his conservative Institute for Justice to go after public financing in the courts, and former GOP Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon is attacking Clean Elections as “welfare for politicians” and promising to get rid of it if he’s elected this fall. Activists tied to GOP fundraisers have floated the idea of a ballot repeal initiative if they can’t get rid of Clean Elections by other means.
Outside Arizona McCain’s announcement should end the notion that Republicans can’t stomach public financing. In fact, there is a clear trend toward greater acceptance among GOP leaders, who are beginning to understand the rank and file’s revulsion at big money’s corrupting power. In recent years, Republican businessmen in Maine, veteran legislators in Vermont, a sitting governor in Massachusetts (along with the state party) and a slew of former elected officials from around the country have expressed their support for public financing, along with a host of politicians in those three states and Arizona. Now that McCain has thrown his clout behind the cause, let’s hope others will follow.