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Public Campaign Financing Favors Incumbents

Heath Fahle

November 20, 2011

When Dr. Prasad Srinivasan wanted to give back to the community that was, as he puts it, "so kind, so generous, and so welcoming" to him over the 30 years since he emigrated from India, he saw running for the General Assembly's 31st District in Glastonbury as an opportunity and a challenge. But because of the state's misguided taxpayer-funded campaign system, the Citizens' Election Program, it was even more difficult than he imagined.

The first big campaign decision Dr. Srinivasan, a Republican, faced was whether to accept the $26,000 in funds provided by the election program to pay for campaign ads, lawn signs, bumper stickers, etc., or to opt out and finance the campaign in the more traditional way raising it in small contributions from friends and family. He decided that he could not give back to his community by taking money from it and turned down public financing.

The incumbent in the race, Rep. Tom Kehoe, a Democrat, already enjoyed the advantages of being an officeholder staff, glossy "Legislative Update" mailers sent to every resident and regular media attention. Like 74 percent of incumbents seeking re-election, Kehoe also received taxpayer funds for his campaign. By the end of the 2010 elections, four out of every five dollars spent by incumbents came from state government.

Public financing was supposed to make life easier for underdogs like Dr. Srinivasan, but it doesn't work that way in practice. Incumbents seeking re-election have only two goals: convince voters that they have done a good job and that they are better suited than their opponents. Challengers, though, have at least three goals: build name recognition with the electorate, educate voters about their policy views and convince people that they would be preferable to the incumbent.

But because the election program artificially caps the amount of money a candidate who has taken public financing can spend, challengers have to accomplish these three expensive tasks with the same amount of money the incumbent has to do only two things that are easier and cheaper. It is a significant advantage for the incumbent.

As if these challenges weren't enough, the election program also adds insult to injury. No stranger to hard work, Dr. Srinivasan relied on his friends and family to support his candidacy financially and it worked. By the end of the campaign, 217 of them had donated to his campaign with an average contribution of $138. As 94 percent were Connecticut residents, their voluntary contributions supported both their friend Srinivasan and their involuntary contributions funded his opponent. Put another way, they were forced to support financially a candidate they opposed politically.

Advocates of the election program assert that the it acts as a counterweight to the high-spending self-funders who sometimes make their way into politics, such as 2010's Linda McMahon, Tom Foley and Ned Lamont. Those three campaigns spent a combined $72 million. Despite that and the fact that none of them ran against an incumbent, voters still did not elect them to office.

Throughout the campaign, plenty of people told Dr. Srinivasan that it would never work and he couldn't compete with the incumbent. But he kept going, keeping with his strategy to be visible everywhere. He went to Rotary Club meetings, coffee houses and intersections, there to wave at commuters every morning and night so they would recognize him. On Election Day, his hard work paid off as 56 percent of the voters chose him over the incumbent.

The victory made Dr. Srinivasan the only legislative challenger without public funds to win against a taxpayer-funded incumbent in 2010. He still gets choked up when he talks about the people who volunteered their time or money for his candidacy. After the victory party was over, he and a few friends worked all night on homemade "Thank You" signs that they displayed throughout Glastonbury the next morning.

Public policy should make it easier for people like him to serve in elected office, not harder. Ending the state's taxpayer-financed campaign program would be a good start.

Heath W. Fahle is the policy director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a think tank based on the campus of Trinity College in Hartford. His white paper on public financing in the 2010 elections, "Government's Thumb on the Scale", is available at http://www.yankeeinstitute.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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