There’s no relationship between Clean Elections and extreme policies

Every time political operatives or business interests in Arizona are embarrassed by an extreme proposal emerging from conservative elected officials in their state, they conveniently point the finger at the state’s Clean Elections program. Without Clean Elections, they claim, the state would be just like everywhere else. It’s a canard being propagated by opponents of the Clean Elections program because they don’t like how it’s diminished their own power.

The latest extreme legislation in Arizona is SB 1062, or the “right-to-refuse” bill, which is a discriminatory effort to allow businesses to refuse to serve or service gay, lesbian, or transgender customers on religious grounds. Thankfully, Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed it yesterday after significant pressure, including from the business community in Arizona and around the country.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote a piece yesterday about the legislation and cited an Arizona Republican (who was “granted anonymity to discuss the matter candidly”) blaming the state’s Clean Elections program for Arizona’s shift to the right and embrace of extreme policies.

Today, New York Times columnist Gail Collins repeats the claim, this time quoting an Arizona State University professor relaying a conversation with “country-club Republicans … bemoan the fact that they have no more influence because of the Clean Elections law.”

Set aside that the current program has been severely limited in recent years by the Supreme Court, leading to fewer and fewer candidates using the system. In fact, just a quarter of current officeholders ran under the program during the last election. A comparison of votes for this “right-to-refuse” bill and Clean Elections participants shows no connection at all between those elected in 2012 utilizing the system and those who voted for this controversial legislation.

That's the problem with citing anonymous political operatives and third-hand conversations. Neither requires analysis. But why let facts get in the way of a good story? Well, the facts matter. Here are a handful of them that are hard to challenge:

  • The three main sponsors of SB 1062—Sens. Nancy Barto, Steve Yarbrough, and Bob Worsley—DID NOT PARTICIPATE in Clean Elections in 2012. In fact, the state’s leading business group, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, endorsed all three in their last election.
  • Ninety-two percent of Republicans in the legislature voted for the bill. Nearly eighty percent of those lawmakers DID NOT PARTICIPATE in the Clean Elections system.
  • In fact, all of the Democrats that voted against the bill are supportive of, or have used, the Clean Elections system. 
  • Governor Jan Brewer, who vetoed the measure, actually DID PARTICIPATE in the Clean Elections program. (It’s also worth noting that Gov. Brewer’s predecessor, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, used Clean Elections for both of her gubernatorial races. In my opinion, she’s the antithesis of extreme.).

Or, in other words, there’s neither correlation nor causation between Clean Elections and the passage of extreme policies. The problem isn’t with Clean Elections. It’s with the capture of the Republican Party of Arizona by those who are okay with discriminatory policies.

Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated trend. In fact, one only has to look at state legislatures across the country to understand it. Other states, including Georgia and Kansas, have been debating similar proposals this year. Neither Georgia nor Kansas have public financing. But both states allow corporate contributions. So should we do an analysis chalking up the existence of these debates to corporate money? That would be silly.

It is understandable opponents of Clean Elections are giving off-the-record quotes to national press to distance themselves from all this embarrassment. But if Arizona Republicans or the business lobbyists want someone to blame, they need to look in the mirror, not at Clean Elections, for their party has taken a sharp turn towards supporting extreme policies. And it’s the same debate going on within the Republican Party in Missouri and Ohio and, yes, in Washington. For Republicans and conservatives, this debate feels existential.

But in Arizona, the debate wasn’t started with the passage of Clean Elections in 1998 and it hasn’t been fueled by a law that’s been gutted by the courts at the behest of those who actually voted for these extreme policies. To suggest otherwise is simply a surface story line that refuses to acknowledge a deeper transformation underway in American politics, especially on the right.