An Investigation by The Maine Wire finds the Clean Election Act has failed to keep big money out of politics, but rather served as a piggy bank for Democrat campaigns
Republican Gov. Paul R. LePage announced his intention to reduce taxpayer funding for political campaigns – also known as the Maine Clean Elections Act – in his 2014-2015 biennial budget. Of course, Democrats want you to know they are fighting to continue a program that last year spent $1.9 million in taxpayer cash on politics.
What they don’t want you to know, is why.
One reason why Democrats are fighting to keep funding in place for the Clean Election Act can be easily observed by reviewing the dependence of their candidates on taxpayer funded campaigns.
When it comes to public campaign financing by party affiliation, Democrats are much more heavily enrolled as so-called “clean election” candidates than Republicans. In the 2012 House and Senate races there were a total of 176 Democrats seeking office, with 146 them running a clean elections campaign. In contrast, only 84 of the 181 Republicans seeking a House or Senate seat were clean election candidates. When considering how reliant a party is on taxpayer funding, 83% of Democrat candidates ran on the dole as opposed to only 46% of Republican candidates.
Of the 187 Maine House of Representatives candidates that received taxpayer funding for their 2012 campaigns, 117 were enrolled as Democrat while 61 were enrolled as Republican. That means that 63% of the clean election candidates in the house race were Democrat and 33% of them were Republican. The remaining 9% is comprised of un-enrolled and Green party candidates.
In the 2012 state Senate races, Democrats made up the majority of taxpayer-funded candidates in the race. In total, 55 senators received taxpayer funding – 29 Democrats versus 23 Republicans.
Even more concerning is the ten year trend in participation in the program. Since 2002, House and Senate (combined) Democrat participation has increased 13%. In the same time span, House and Senate (combined) Republican participation has decreased 8%. So while more and more Democrats funding their political campaigns with taxpayer dollars, more Republicans are running traditional campaigns.
Another argument that Democrats in support of funding the Clean Elections Act have made is that it keeps big money out of politics and prevents those with the richest donors from “buying” the election; however, this argument is not grounded in research or experience.
According to an April 24 report from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, state-level campaign finance reform has been unsuccessful in reducing the influence of private money on politics:
Popular wisdom holds that money plays a dominant and corrupting role in American democracy, so it follows that campaign finance regulations might have a dramatic impact on political corruption. However, scientific research does not support this view of money in politics. For example, contrary to the popular concern that elective offices are essentially for sale to the highest bidder, several studies suggest only negligible effects of campaign spending on candidates’ electoral success (e.g., Levitt 1994; Gerber 1998; Milyo and Groseclose 1999; Milyo 2001).
Mercatus’ nationwide findings held true in Maine during the 2010 gubernatorial race. That race featured three prominent candidates: Republican Paul LePage, Independent Eliot R. Cutler and publicly-funded Democrat Libby A. Mitchell. According to Maine’s campaign finance records, Cutler’s campaign spent the most of the three, at approximately $2.4 million dollars—the bulk of which he supplied himself — yet still lost. “Clean” candidate Mitchell spent less than Cutler, but more money than LePage — and still lost. Mitchell spent approximately $1.9 million in the 2010 race, compared to only $1.2 million spent by LePage. Mitchell’s $1.9 million campaign was funded with $1.2 million initial taxpayer funding combined with $700K worth of tax dollars in matching funds due to Cutler’s spending.
This case study shows that spending more money, regardless of the source, does not guarantee victory. Democrats have labeled non-publicly funded candidates as being out of touch with voters; however, it was LePage, a privately financed candidate, who ultimately received the most votes out of all of the candidates.
Since the 2010 election, the matching fund provision of the Clean Elections Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in the 2011 case Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC V. Bennett. However, in this race, the “clean” candidate actually did more spending than a privately financed candidate, and still lost anyway. The Supreme Court struck down the matching fund provision of the Arizona’s public campaign finance law was unconstitutional because it violated the freedom of speech. The Court held that candidates who privately fund their campaign may feel hesitant to spend money because they know a clean election candidate will receive additional taxpayer money as a direct result.
This holding of a violation of the first amendment could potentially lead to more changes or even an abolishment of the law. With the Supreme Court deciding that the matching fund provision to be a violation of free speech, they may also consider the core of the law next, which forces tax payers to fund a campaign that is built on principals they fundamentally oppose. This could be seen as an infringement on their right to freedom of speech and expression.
The lack of effectiveness of the law doesn’t stop with the struck down matching fund provision. A much larger loop hole in the law is the ability for third party groups, particularly political action committees, to campaign in support of a candidate with unlimited funds, even if they are a clean election candidate. In 2012, there was over $5.8 million donated to Maine political committees. Over 62% of that money was donated to Democrat Party committees, with the remaining 37% going to Republican committees. Between 2002 and 2012 Democrat political committees have outspent Republican political committees $18.5 million to $13.2 million. Often the money spent by such political committees overshadows any intended effect a clean election funded candidate would have on not bringing big money campaigns to the race.
It is for these reasons, and many more, the Clean Election Act is not a legitimate way to protect elections and is an imprudent use of tax payer money. Democrats continuously use the Clean Election Act to paint an image of themselves as ethical politicians, who campaign to the people, yet it is the Democrats who are spending more political committee money than the Republicans—even as they reap the lion’s share of taxpayer dollars allocated for campaigns.
The Clean Election Act has done nothing but give Democrats free, tax payer funded campaign money while their various political committees—to say nothing of organized labor—have been in the background raising big money from rich donors to indirectly fund their campaign and do their dirty work for them.
Robert Plumpton, Jr. is a senior at the University of Southern Maine studying political science. He lives in Alfred, Maine. Currently, he serves as an intern with the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Find him on Twitter @b_plump or contact him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org