U.S. Supreme Court Clean Elections "Matching Funds" Block: What It Means for Arizona

As attorneys at the Goldwater Institute stressed in a conference call with reporters this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to block matching funds -- effectively stopping their dispersal for the 2010 election cycle -- is hardly shocking.

Astute observers had anticipated the possibility of such action for more than a year, and savvy political consultants surely factored it into their planning.

(See our posts here, here and here.)

But the fact that the decision was made -- and is almost certainly irrevocable prior to the 2010 elections -- will have huge consequences for who gets elected this fall, who makes money, and who loses.

Our (admittedly subjective) analysis after the jump.

WHY: Mills, a wealthy businessman and political outsider, already has poured $2.3 million into his campaign for governor. If the Supreme Court hadn't acted to block matching funds, his opponents in the Republican primary would have gotten a huge infusion of cash: Both Jan Brewer and Dean Martin stood to receive $1.4 million each to level the playing field. Now they'll be stuck with just $707,447 for their primary campaigns, no matter how much more Mills chooses to spend.

There's a real question as to whether Mills is electable. Despite all his spending to date, he hasn't obtained a lead in most polls we've seen. But he'll certainly have a shot now that he can spend and spend without double the amount in public funds being granted to his opponents.

BIG LOSER: Andrew Thomas
WHY: Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne is facing off in the GOP primary against former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Horne is raising money the traditional way, using donors. Thomas is taking public funding for his campaign. Thomas is wildly unpopular with the wealthy lawyers and Chamber of Commerce types who traditionally donate to campaigns, so he may have had no choice but to take public funding.

But the Supreme Court's decision may hurt Thomas more than any other candidate. Previously, he could have counted on public funds to match not only Horne's fundraising, but also any "independent expenditures" made against him. (And, trust us, there are so many people who hate Thomas, an independent campaign against him is all but certain.) No matter what happens now, he's stuck with just $183,311 for the
primary campaign and $274,967 for the general. His strategy -- to keep shouting "illegals" every chance he gets -- may not be nearly so effective now that he won't get a dollar for dollar match. His record will be an issue.

Meanwhile, Felecia Rotellini, the likely winner of the Democratic primary, is also running as a traditional candidate. Tied into the old Napolitano machine, she should have no problem raising some serious cash. And she should have a far less bruising primary than Horne or Thomas, leaving her plenty of money for the general election. Even if he makes it out of the GOP primary, Andrew Thomas could be in for a world of hurt.

BIG WINNER: The Goldwater Institute
WHY: There was already a legal challenge under way to the Clean Elections system, but after the Supreme Court ruling in Davis v. FEC convinced attorneys Nick Dranias and Clint Bolick that matching funds had to be unconstitutional, they decided to jump into the fray with some fast-tracked legal action of their own. The conservative think tank spent a ton of time on the case -- Dranias estimated in a conference call this morning that it invested 2200 "man and woman hours" on the litigation. But today's move by the Supreme Court doesn't just vindicate their efforts in the 2010 cycle. It also suggests the court is interested in potentially overturning the appellate court ruling that upheld matching funds -- and may be willing to ban them for good.

BIG LOSER : Constantin Querard
WHY: We don't want to single out Querard -- he's a nice guy and seems to be a true believer. But there's no question that matching funds have been a boon to political consultants, and Querard, a Republican who runs pro-family candidates, is chief among them. Why? By running "clean," candidates are assured a nice big chunk of money for their campaigns, whether or not they had popular support. And, with the proper hijinks or properly wealthy opponents, a candidate -- and his consultant -- could get even more money on top of that, in the form of matching funds. In some legislative races, candidates with minimal support were able to reap $107,394 just for showing up. Lots of people made a lot of money on this system. Now the gravy train is coming to an end.

BIG WINNER: The people of Arizona
WHY: You can say what you will about public funding for elections. In theory, it's a great idea, and under certain conditions, we still think it might be an okay thing. But you cannot say the same about matching funds. There has been an incredible amount of skullduggery and dirty tricks associated with matching funds. (See our column here for one appalling example.)

It's one thing if the state simply gives a lump sum to candidates running for office. It's quite another if they up that ante with tens of thousands of dollars every time someone points out a problem with their record. At some point, the truth gets lost, candidates with genuine support lose to demagogues, and political gamesmanship becomes the only way to win.

The Supreme Court's decision today blocks that outcome for this election cycle. The big question now is whether they'll follow through and do it in the long term.

The Goldwater Institute's Dranias says that the think tank will be filing its formal petition for review by the end of August. If the normal time frame holds, that means there will be oral arguments in 2011 and a decision by June of that year, he says.

The block on matching funds will stay in place until one of two things happens: The court can rule on the merits, or the court can decline to hear the case at all. Should the latter scenario happen, which now seems unlikely, the appellate verdict upholding matching funds would stand as law in Arizona.

In their conference call with reporters, Dranias and Bolick reiterated that they have little sympathy for candidates who bet on the idea of "matching funds" and are now forced to go without.

"If they behaved reasonably, they would have a contingency plan," Dranias said. "After 19 months of rulings from the district court saying this is unconstitutional, no serious candidate would not be prepared for this contingency."

Added Bolick, "People who gambled that public subsidies would be available to them now are reaping the folly of such a gamble."

Are you listening, Andrew Thomas?   

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