Attorney General William Tong and Dominic A. Rapini, a candidate for secretary of the state, this week became the first candidates for statewide office to qualify for Connecticut’s public financing of campaigns in 2022.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission approved a $968,250 general election grant for Tong, a Democrat unopposed for his party’s nomination, and $484,125 for Rapini’s primary for the Republican nomination.
The commission also approved grants for 20 candidates for the General Assembly, a mix of incumbents and newcomers attracted to a voluntary program that commits them to strict limits on contributions and spending but frees them of the entanglements endemic to political fundraising.
The Citizens’ Election Program, created in 2005 to blunt the influence of special interests in elections, provides grants ranging from $33,175 for a state representative race to $7.7 million for a gubernatorial campaign.
“It does keep a lot of big money out of our campaigns, which I think is a good thing,” said Rapini, who asserted having some qualms about using public money. “And it does allow a candidate who’s willing to work hard to put themselves out there and participate in 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 money as a deciding factor.
Based on past election cycles, nearly all legislative candidates in opposed races will participate, as well as a majority of the candidates for statewide constitutional offices — with one notable exception.
The gubernatorial grants will go unclaimed this year as Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Bob Stefanowski, opted out of the voluntary program, as they did in 2018.
Both are using their personal wealth. Lamont spent $15 million on his 2018 race and is expected to commit at least that in 2022. Stefanowski already has deposited $10 million into his 2022 campaign account.
But the impetus for them to opt out was as much about the calendar as their desire and ability to spend more. No grants are possible until a candidate secures either a party’s nomination or a place in a primary, and neither is possible until May.
In 2018, Stefanowski began television advertising about four months before Mark Boughton, the convention-endorsed candidate, and two other Republican rivals, Tim Herbst and Steve Obsitnik, got their grants.
“The strategy on Bob’s part was very smart,” Herbst said. “It took advantage of the fact that there was a huge vacuum, because we didn’t get our money until June.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was elected, however, in 2010 as a publicly financed candidate, despite being outspent in a primary by Lamont and in the general election by Republican Tom Foley,
“So there are some circumstances that it still works, and there’s some circumstances that it doesn’t work,” said Tom Swan, a strong backer of public financing as the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.
But others see the clash of wealthy self-funders, unconstrained by budgets or calendar, as potentially rendering public financing unattractive in gubernatorial contests, as it has become in presidential contests.
“It needs to be fixed,” said Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, who has only run as a publicly financed candidate.
Even Lamont, speaking after a campaign event Friday afternoon in West Hartford, said the gubernatorial portion of the program probably needs tweaking in a way that the legislative piece does not.
“I think we know how important it is in the legislative races — evens out the playing field and lets everybody compete. And I think that’s really good,” Lamont said.
But he said the rise of super PACs that can make unlimited expenditures to influence gubernatorial races are one concern about relying on the budget imposed by the Citizens’ Election Program.
“I think it’s something we ought to revisit and see if we can reform … to make it more meaningful,” Lamont said.
Lamont campaigned in West Hartford center with Slap and Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford.
Farrar, one of the 20 legislative candidates whose grants were approved this week, said public financing contributed to her decision to run.
“It’s always a big deal, because money can be such a barrier to not just having the time to run, but also what it looks like to run,” Farrar said. “I often hear from folks who don’t have public financing. They spend all their time just fundraising. And to me, that’s not what running or being an elected official should be about.”
The program was quickly embraced by candidates for 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 dropped since the availability of public financing.
“I couldn’t run without the Citizens’ Election Program,” said Lisa Thomas of Coventry, a Democrat running in the 35th Senate District for the second time. “The first time I ran, I was teaching full time. I certainly didn’t have time to be doing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fundraising.”
She lost by less than half a percentage point two years ago to Republican Dan Champagne, who is not running for reelection. Thomas retired as a full-time teacher, but she still works as as substitute teacher and chairs the Town Council.
“When you spend all your time fundraising, you’re not paying attention to the people you’re hoping 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 barred.
Aside from securing a place on the ballot, a candidate must demonstrate voter support by collecting qualifying contributions from small-dollar donors who can give anywhere from $5 to $290.
The qualifying contributions vary by race.
If Lamont or Stefanowski opted in, each would have had to raise $288,800, mostly from in-state donors. Candidates for other statewide constitutional offices must raise $86,600 to receive general election grants of just under $1 million.
Candidates for U.S. Senate and U.S. House are not eligible.
Candidates for state representative must raise $5,800 in contributions, with at least 150 coming from individuals residing in municipalities in their districts. Candidates for state Senate must raise $17,300, with at least 300 contributions from individuals residing in municipalities in their districts.
Rapini, a senior account manager for Apple, said he was able to raise his qualifying contributions by making 1,500 phone calls to potential donors at night and on weekends.
“Quite frankly, working full time, it’s really the only way I could have run for office this year,” he said.