It was anything but politics as usual in Connecticut's primaries last night. For the first time, candidates for Governor and other statewide offices joined General Assembly candidates in having the option to run under the state's Citizens' Election Program. The program allows them to qualify for competitive campaign funding by collecting a large number of small dollar contributions from state residents. The success we've seen the program have in the General Assembly contests was replicated in statewide primaries, with a new twist.
Both party's gubernatorial primaries had a David vs. Goliath money story. In the race for the Democratic nod, former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy took on uber-millionaire Ned Lamont (the same Ned Lamont who four years ago gave Sen. Joe Liberman (I-Conn.) the "I" in his party affiliation). Malloy chose to opt in to the Citizens' Election Program while Lamont cracked opened his wallet and self-funded almost his entire campaign.
Malloy was outspent by Lamont by nearly to 4 to 1. Lamont poured nearly $9 million of his own money and raised another $1 million. Malloy relied on the $2.5 million he got from the Citizens' Election Fund, plus $250,000 from the small dollar donations (none more than $100) he collected. As the New Haven Independent pointed out in their election night coverage, Lamont spent "more money than any gubernatorial candidate has ever spent on a campaign in Connecticut history--not just for a primary, but for a primary and general election combined."
A June poll had Lamont ahead by a margin of 39 percent to 22 percent. The election seemed his for the taking. But in an upset, Malloy bested Lamont by 17 points. Malloy gained more than 30 percentage points in two months despite Lamont's wealth. In his victory speech, Malloy credited the Citizens' Election Program and claimed victory on behalf of the more than 4,000 people who made small qualifying contributions to his campaign. He said they made "sure that on this day we could stand together and stand behind Clean Elections in the state of Connecticut." The Citizens' Election Program didn't make Malloy the best-financed candidate in the race, but it gave him enough to win.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary, there was a similar story. Millionaire businessman and former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley eked out a victory after outspending both of his opponents. Like Lamont, Foley self funded the bulk of his campaign. Less than a month ago, a poll had Foley leading Citizens' Election Fund Candidate Lt. Gov. Mike Fedele by 35 points--48 percent to 13 percent. After Fedele received his Citizens' Election funding, he was able to considerably close the gap--Fedele ended up losing to Foley by only 3 percentage points. Fedele gained 30 points in less than a month. Local pundits observed that if Fedele had received his funds a bit earlier--Foley filed four losing lawsuits that delayed the arrival of Fedele's funding--he just might have pulled off an upset as well.
There was one other high profile race in Connecticut. In a stark contrast, the GOP primary for U.S. Senate saw former professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon smack down two other candidates by tapping into her considerable wealth. McMahon spent $25 million dollars to secure the nod--she's talked of spending another $50 million in her bid to acquire the U.S. Senate seat. Because of the way Congress has chosen to fund campaigns for federal office, McMahon's towering financial advantage crushed her two Republican opponents, who were not permitted to use the state's Citizens' Election Program. And her November opponent, longtime Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, will not have access to the system either. The tens of millions in new money McMahon will spend will drive Blumenthal into an endless series of big dollar fundraisers while she courts voters. Ironically, Blumenthal has been a longtime supporter of the Citizens' Election Program.
Federal races would look more like Connecticut state elections if the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826, S. 752), pending in Congress was enacted. Non-millionaire candidates would have more than a fighting chance when running against bottomless pockets. And there would be a small donation alternative to the current system of candidate dependence of big checks and insider bundlers.
Fair Elections, sponsored by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Connecticut's own Rep. John Larson, would end the high roller campaign money chase and allow our leaders to seek office by relying on their constituents back home. The bill has broad cross caucus and bipartisan support in the House (with more than 160 co-sponsors). Momentum and cosponsors are growing in the U.S. Senate as well. Tuesday night's results in the Nutmeg state suggest this alternative is worth a try.