Clean Elections Matching Funds Are Likely Gone, Baby, Gone

Barring a sudden change of heart or some hitherto undiscovered legal analysis, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver indicated today that she will hand the Goldwater Institute a huge victory and strike down the "matching funds" component of Arizona's publicly funded elections system.

Silver made her intention clear in a "draft order" she issued to the parties in the case today, a highly unusual preview to tomorrow's oral arguments on the case.

Silver's draft order would grant summary judgment to the Goldwater Institute and strike down matching funds as unconstitutional. That's exactly what Goldwater's ace First Amendment attorney, Nick Dranias, has been asking her to do for more than a year.

A little background: In Arizona's Clean Elections system, candidates may receive government funding for their political campaigns as long as they meet some basic requirements. But candidates may also choose to raise money in traditional ways, by hitting up donors or using their own money. If a Clean candidate faces a well-funded opponent, the Clean candidate has traditionally been given a subsidy to "level" the playing field.

Those matching funds are unconstitutional, according to Judge Silver's order.

Unless Judge Silver reverses herself after oral arguments tomorrow, this decision will have a huge impact on this year's election cycle. Based on our (admittedly nonexpert) understanding of her draft order, candidates may still run "Clean" and receive government funding for their campaign.

But if their traditionally-funded opponents pour money into attacking them, they will not be able to spend more to combat it. They'll be stuck with the original funding.

As we wrote in a cover story last year, this will likely make Clean Elections very unappealing to anyone in a high profile race.

Without a matching funds provision, [experts] say, Clean Elections is doomed.

"You won't see any incumbents using Clean Elections, that's for sure," said one prominent Democratic campaign consultant. "It would be like putting a bull's-eye on your back." After all, by accepting Clean Elections money, candidates agree to strict spending limits -- making them vulnerable to attack without matching funds.

One proposal being discussed [in the Legislature] would double the amount of funding for Clean Elections candidates. Instead of needing a trigger to get more money, everybody would get more money right off the bat. But some insiders say that won't work -- it doesn't matter what the limit is so much as that there is one, they say.

Clean Elections, they worry, may be dead in Arizona.

Governor Jan Brewer had indicated she plans to run as a "clean" candidate. We've heard the same about Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who's planning a run for Arizona Attorney General.

Unless Judge Silver reverses herself -- which seems wildly unlikely to us at this point -- both of those campaign strategies may be deeply flawed.

We're preparing the bull's eyes for their backs now.

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