Dan Haar: $37M in public cash for a CT governor race? Could happen

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It takes a lot these days to bring the two political parties together on a hot issue. How about a governor and his challenger spending $38.5 million of their own money in an election?

Yeah, that did the trick. This week, following an eye-popping pair of campaign finance reports, the top Republican in the state House and the top Democrat in the state Senate both submitted bills calling for sharp increases in public money that would go to candidates for governor.

Their goal: Give folks who aren’t multimillionaires a chance to live in a Georgian mansion in Hartford and direct a staff of 50,000 workers for four years.

Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, the Senate president pro-tem, wants to see the public handouts double for qualifying candidates, to a maximum of $3.2 million for a primary and $15.5 million for a general election. That’s a heady $18.7 million in public scratch for a campaign, more than $37 million if both candidates collect it. 

House Minority Leader Vin Candelora, R-North Branford, favors a $10 million grant for governor hopefuls in a general election, up from the current $7.7 million.

We will have a robust debate this year on the best way to reform the public campaign finance system, known as the Citizens’ Election Program. It was adopted in 2005, after former Gov. John G. Rowland became a guest of the federal government in a corruption scandal.  Since the first grants in 2008, it has become wildly popular, used by the vast majority of candidates for state office.

The general election grants for major parties in the House (up to $33,175) and Senate (up to $112,795) and other constitutional offices (up to $968,250) seem adequate, though any race can attract much higher self-funders. There's no strong move to raise them. 

But clearly, there’s consensus to boost the public handout for the top office after Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, and Republican Bob Stefanowski, blew past the old spending totals.

Lamont kicked in $25.5 million of his own largely inherited fortune and Stefanowski spent just under $13 million in cash he earned as an executive and business consultant. (Stefanowski technically lent his campaign the money but his chance of finding contributors to pay it back is, ah, low.)

“Marty Looney and I put in similar bills and hell has not frozen over,” the conservative Candelora quipped Thursday about Looney, the furthest left-leaning caucus leader at the Capitol.

Lamont breaks Rell's vote record

The State Elections Enforcement Commission is also preparing to recommend changes including higher outlays for qualifying candidates for governor, spokesman Josh Foley said Friday.

The plans on the table differ in other aspects. For example, Candelora and other Republicans want to make it easier for candidates to qualify for the public grants by allowing larger contributions -- up to $1,000 -- to count toward a candidate’s matching funds.

And Looney wants to hand over one-quarter of the public financing grant for a primary as soon as a candidate qualifies, even it’s before he or she earns a spot in a primary.

As a colorful aside, Lamont broke former Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s 2006 record of total votes for a governor, tallying 710,186 over Stefanowski to Rell’s 710,048 over Democrat John DeStefano – a 138-vote edge. 

I wrote a column a few days after the November election, saying it appeared Lamont would fall short of Rell’s record but the certified total put him over the top. Rell, who told me she would be happy to see Lamont break or at least tie her record, reached her total with 63 percent of the vote while Lamont pulled in 56 percent as turnout increased – perhaps driven by all this out-of-control spending.

“From my view the percentages are always more difficult than the numbers,” Looney said, giving Rell full credit, though he pointed out that Lamont’s margin over Stefanowski was larger than we’ve seen in most recent governor races.

The spirit of the law

Lamont and Stefanowski also faced each other in 2018 without public financing, spending much less than they did this time around.  Even then, their money beat back or scared off actual and would-be opponents. 

For example, Stefanowski was on TV with ads in the winter of 2018, spending about $1.5 million as an unknown political outsider. By the time then-Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton won the Republican endorsement in May, and received $1.35 million in public financing for the primary in June, it was basically too late for him and three other GOP candidates in the primary to catch up with Stefanowski.

“People thought on primary day that he was the endorsed nominee and I was challenging him,” Boughton told me Thursday, recalling conversations at the polls.

Boughton, now the state tax commissioner and infrastructure czar under Lamont, would have benefited from receiving more and earlier money, and said he would favor the reforms – speaking for himself, not for the administration.

Looney submitted his reform plan like any other legislator. He didn’t discuss it widely with other Democrats including Sen. Mae Flexer, co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.   

“I think we need to make our system more attractive to people and not put them at a competitive disadvantage,” Looney told me. “The system really needs to be tweaked in order to preserve the spirit from its original passage.”

The totals are adjusted for inflation every four years. But spending has far outpaced inflation; in the elections of 1994, 1998 and 2002, for example, Rowland spent an average of $5.4 million per race, according to a legislative report, and won all three. His Democratic opponents spent an average of $2.3 million. 

The irony is that if both major parties' nominees were to participate in public financing, they would need nowhere near the higher amounts Looney is proposing. 

What's the right level?

It's not easy to qualify. In 2022, a hopeful for the Capitol corner office who wanted public financing would have needed to raise $288,800 in contributions no larger than $290 -- 90 percent of that from Connecticut residents. That ends up being 2,000, maybe 3,000 separate contributions.

That's too steep for Candelora's tastes. He wants to see the maximum raised to $1,000 for governor, which would cut way down on the total number of contributions needed to qualify. “The Democrats,” Candelora said, “are politically, I think, put in an advantage because they have all the state unions to pull their donations from.”

Dems, as you can imagine, are not likely to agree to a sharp hike in the maximum qualifying contribution.

“One of the virtues of the current system is that you have to demonstrate a certain base of support,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, co-chair of the elections committee, who used public financing in his race in November. “Keeping a significant number of contributions as a requirement is important.”

Blumenthal had no comment on how much he’d like to see the public financing for governor increase, but agreed it should rise.

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of the watchdog and advocacy group Common Cause in Connecticut, is wary of dramatic hikes in the dollar amounts. Looney’s idea of $18.7 million for a governor campaign “seems extreme,” she said, agreeing with Candelora, “and I think that it invites challenges to keeping the program a clean money program.”

For example, higher amounts could invite more "dark money" from outside groups, which is unlimited under a the controversial Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ended limits on private, outside contributions as long as they don't coordinate with a campaign. More outside money subverts the intent of the public financing law. And higher amounts could leave minor-party candidate further behind. 

As adopted in 2005, the law allowed publicly financed candidates who faced self-funders to receive bonus amounts if their opponents hit certain thresholds. That was struck down by the courts around the time of Citizens United. 

“They interpreted that somehow as penalizing the self funder,” Looney said of the state’s catch-up provision.

Candelora and Looney agree it isn’t necessary for a publicly financed candidate to match a super-rich self-funder such as Lamont. “But there’s a threshold level you have to be able to reach to get your message out,” Looney said.

What is that level? We learned in 2022 that it's more than the $7.7 million grant. My view is that it’s slightly more than the $10 million Candelora suggests and less than Looney’s proposed outlay.

dhaar@hearstmediact.com