Lamont and Stefanowski to bypass public campaign funding as early candidates qualify

Attorney General William Tong and Dominic A. Rapini, a candidate for Secretary of State, this week became the first candidates for statewide office to qualify for public campaign finance in Connecticut in 2022.

The State Elections Implementation Commission approved a $968,250 general election grant for Tong, an unopposed Democrat for his party’s nomination, and $484,125 for Rapini’s primary for the Republican nomination.

The commission also approved grants for 20 General Assembly candidates, a mix of incumbents and newcomers drawn to a voluntary program that binds them to strict limits on contributions and spending but frees them from the endemic entanglements of the political fundraising.

The Citizens’ Election Program, created in 2005 to mitigate the influence of special interests in elections, offers grants ranging from $33,175 for a state representative race to $7.7 million for a campaign to the post of governor.

“It saves our campaigns a lot of money, which I think is a good thing,” said Rapini, who said he had qualms about using public money. “And it allows a candidate who is willing to work hard to come forward and compete on a level playing field.”

His two rivals for the nomination, Rep. Terrie Woods of Darien and Brock L. Weber of New Britain, are expected to qualify for the same grants, neutralizing cash as a deciding factor.

Based on past election cycles, nearly all legislative candidates in opposing races will participate, along with a majority of candidates for statewide constitutional office — with one notable exception.

The governor’s grants will not be claimed this year because Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Bob Stefanowski, opted out of the voluntary program, as they did in 2018.

Both use their personal wealth. Lamont spent $15 million on his 2018 run and is expected to commit at least that in 2022. Stefanowski has already deposited $10 million into his 2022 campaign account.

But the impetus for them to pull out was as much about timing as their desire and ability to spend more. No grants are possible until a candidate has secured a party nomination or a place in a primary, and none are possible before May.

In 2018, Stefanowski began television advertising about four months before convention-endorsed nominee Mark Boughton and two other Republican rivals, Tim Herbst and Steve Obsitnik, won their grants.

“The strategy on Bob’s part was very smart,” Herbst said. “He took advantage of the fact that there was a huge void, because we didn’t get our money until June.”

Governor Dannel P. Malloy was however elected in 2010 as a state-funded candidate, although he was passed in a primary by Lamont and in the general election by Republican Tom Foley,

“So there are circumstances where it still works, and there are circumstances where it doesn’t,” said Tom Swan, a strong supporter of public funding as executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.

But others see the clash of wealthy self-financers, unconstrained by budgets or timing, as potentially making public funding unattractive in gubernatorial elections, as it has become in presidential elections.

“It needs to be fixed,” said Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, who ran only as a state-funded candidate.

Even Lamont, speaking after a Friday afternoon campaign event in West Hartford, said the governor’s part of the program likely needs tweaking in ways the legislative piece doesn’t.

“I think we know how important that is in legislative races – leveling the playing field and allowing everyone to compete. And I think that’s really good,” Lamont said.

But he said the rise of super PACs that can spend unlimited amounts to influence gubernatorial races is a concern about relying on the budget imposed by the Citizens’ Election program.

“I think it’s something we should revisit and see if we can reform … to make it more meaningful,” Lamont said.

Lamont campaigned in central West Hartford with Slap and Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford.

Farrar, one of 20 legislative candidates whose grants were approved this week, said public funding helped her decision to run.

“It’s always a big deal because money can be such a barrier to not only having time to race, but also what it looks like,” Farrar said. “I often hear from people who don’t have public funding. They spend all their time fundraising. And to me, that’s not what running or being elected should be. »

The program was quickly embraced by candidates for the General Assembly, with 71% of House candidates and 79% of Senate candidates participating in its inaugural year of 2008.

The number of uncontested races has declined since the availability of public funding.

“I couldn’t run without the Citizens’ Election Program,” said Lisa Thomas of Coventry, a Democrat running for the second time in the 35th Senate District. “The first time I raced, I was teaching full time. I certainly haven’t had time to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising.

She lost less than half a percentage point two years ago to Republican Dan Champagne, who is not running for re-election. Thomas retired as a full-time teacher, but she still works as a substitute teacher and chairs the city council.

“When you spend all your time fundraising, you don’t pay attention to the people you hope to represent,” Thomas said.

Participating candidates must agree to spending limits — about $8 million for a gubernatorial campaign this year — and maximum contributions of no more than $290. Donations from state contractors and political action committees are prohibited.

In addition to securing a spot on the ballot, a candidate must demonstrate voter support by raising eligible contributions from small donors who can donate between $5 and $290.

Qualifying contributions vary by race.

If Lamont or Stefanowski had chosen to participate, each would have had to raise $288,800, mostly from state donors. Candidates for other constitutional offices statewide must raise $86,600 to receive general election grants of just under $1 million.

Candidates for the United States Senate and United States House are not eligible.

Candidates for state representative must raise $5,800 in contributions, including at least $150 from people residing in municipalities in their districts. State Senate candidates must raise $17,300, with at least 300 contributions from people residing in municipalities in their districts.

Rapini, senior account manager at Apple, said he was able to increase his eligible contributions by making 1,500 phone calls to potential donors at night and on weekends.

“Quite frankly, working full time is really the only way I could have run for office this year,” he said.

Michael J. Birnbaum