CT public campaign financing faces a reckoning in self-funders era

The dominance of wealthy self-funders in the Connecticut gubernatorial races is prompting an examination of how to restore the relevance of the state’s groundbreaking public financing system to top-of-the ticket elections.

Campaign finance reports filed this week showed Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont spent $25.7 million to win reelection to a second term, while his Republican opponent, Bob Stefanowski, spent $14.5 million.

Had they opted for public financing under the voluntary Citizens Election Program, they would have been limited to about $8 million — roughly the amount Lamont spent just on television advertising in the last five weeks of the campaign.

Created in 2005 after a bid-rigging scandal forced Republican Gov. John G. Rowland from office, the program provides public grants to qualifying candidates who agree to strict limits on fundraising and spending. It is used by most candidates for every state office except one — governor.

The Democratic co-chairs of the legislative committee overseeing election law and the leader of the House Republican minority all say the time is ripe for an examination of whether the program needs to be updated.

At issue is both the sufficiency of the public grant for a gubernatorial race, which currently is $7.7 million for a general-election campaign and $1.6 million for a primary, and the more complicated question of whether the money is too hard to obtain and comes too late in the election cycle.

“We need to look at both the size of the grants but also the timeline for the process and the way people get access to CEP funds,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

“It’s incumbent on us to continue to examine how to ensure that it’s viable and and provides candidates the opportunity to successfully participate and be competitive,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, her co-chair.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said he already has filed a bill with other Republicans to ease the task of qualifying.

“My concern over the last decade is what we’ve seen is while CEP might be working okay for state rep and state senate races, we are seeing a lot of self funders running for governor,” Candelora said. “And is it a function of the way the program is structured? Or is it just a coincidence?”

To qualify in 2022, a gubernatorial candidate would have had to raise $288,000 in small donations ranging from $5 to $290, a means of demonstrating broad-based support. No grant can be paid until a candidate is qualified for a primary or general-election ballot, which generally cannot come sooner than late May.

Candelora’s bill would raise the contribution limit to $1,000, making the qualifying amount easier to get. He said the Republicans are also ready for a conversation about increasing the grants for elections for governors and the other statewide constitutional officers.

In 2018, when five Republicans competed in a primary for governor, none of the three Republican gubernatorial candidates who participated in the program qualified for their grants until late June, less than two months before the August primary.

The grant for a primary that year was $1.35 million.

By then, Stefanowski already had spent $1.5 million, leaving the publicly financed candidates — Mark Boughton, Tim Herbst and Steven Obsitnik — scrambling to catch up.

“At that point, the cake had already been baked, because Bob had been on TV since January,” Herbst said.

Boughton and Herbst got their money on June 20; Obsitnik did not qualify until July 18, less than a month before the primary.

Stefanowski won the primary. Boughton, the GOP convention-endorsed candidate, finished second. Herbst finished fourth behind a self-funding businessman, David Stemerman, who had spent $6.7 million. Obsitnik was last.

“By the time they got their money, it was too late,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic strategist who advised Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the only publicly financed candidate to win a governor’s race.

Occhiogrosso said candidates do not need to match their opponents in funding so long as they have sufficient funds to make their case. Established candidates can survive being outspent, since they often start campaigns with the advantage of a political base and name recognition.

Malloy was outspended in the 2010 Democratic primary by Lamont and in the general election by Republican Tom Foley, each of whom self-funded their campaigns.

Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy won US Senate races in 2010 and 2012. Each faced Republican Linda McMahon, who spent $50 million on both campaigns. Blumenthal spent $8.7 million; Murphy, $10.4 million. (Federal races are not eligible for the CEP.)

As originally written, the publicly financing law provided an additional grant triggered by the spending of a self-funder. But the courts struck down trigger provisions in campaign financing laws.

Tom Swan of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, part of the coalition that fought for passage, said the backers sought the trigger in anticipation of a publicly financed candidate competing against a self-funder.

“We still think it’s a great program, and we need to strengthen it,” Swan said.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he supports a review.

“The system doesn’t really work right now with respect to self-funders,” Ritter said.

Calculating a reasonable grant for a gubernatorial race will be easier than figuring out how to provide money earlier while still ensuring only credible candidates qualify. Ritter said the standard for getting a public grant cannot be too easy.

“There should be a viability test to get public dollars,” agreed Mike Mandell, the former executive director of the Connecticut Democrats. “That is fair, but is that viability test meaning that you really can’t do anything to run a campaign before the convention is complete, which at that point is the end of May?”

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, who won a primary as a publicly financed candidate in 2018 and is a likely candidate for governor if Lamont does not seek a third term, said she was encouraged to hear that the program was under review.

“I do think that we need to increase the amount of money that is available to candidates who run for governor, because the governor’s race cannot just be about the self-funders,” she said. “We had two this time, Gov. Lamont and Bob Stefanowski, so this is not a partisan issue.”

The State Elections Enforcement Commission, which administers the program, is working on its own proposed revisions regarding the grant amounts and the timing for obtaining them.