Republican Surge Brings A ‘Clean Elections’ First

January 4, 2011

Peggy Judd may be a community leader in Willcox but she still faced steep odds in her bid last fall to represent southeastern Arizona in the state House of Representatives.

She was up against Democratic incumbent Patricia Fleming in the sprawling District 25, which begins in Cochise County, loops through Santa Cruz County and winds up west and north of Tucson.  The district has proven to be one of the more competitive in the state over the past decade, even though it gives Democrats a registration advantage of 7.4 percentage points.  That by itself put Republican Judd behind the eight-ball.

Moreover, she was campaigning at a severe financial disadvantage. 

Peggy Judd

Peggy Judd

Judd had chosen to run “clean,” as it has become known in the parlance since Arizona’s Clean Elections Act was enacted in 1998. In addition to the $750 she raised prior to qualifying for the program, her spending was limited to two stipends from the state.  She limited herself further by declining to take the first installment – even though she was entitled to it – because she didn’t have opposition in the primary election.  That meant she received only the general election stipend of $21,400.

Fleming, meanwhile, was running” traditional.”  Although contributors are limited in what they can give to any campaign, the candidates have the freedom to raise – and spend – as much they can.  Her re-election campaign banked $60,000+. 

Changed Conditions

There was no getting around the disparity.  In the past, publicly-supported candidates could count on matching funds from Clean Elections to remedy large imbalances, but that practice was put on hiatus last year while its fate is decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Without matching funds, the already difficult choice between running clean or traditional became even trickier.

As a result, the percentage of general-election candidates who participated in the program in 2010 fell for the first time to 50 percent.  That’s in comparison with the high of 64 percent reached in 2008.

The participants among the 16 candidates for statewide office divided equally.  Eight – including the two gubernatorial candidates – participated.  Five of them won.  The other eight ran traditional.  Three of them won.

There was more effect on legislative campaigns.  Again, almost exactly half of the candidates participated in the program, but Clean Elections was not quite the same recipe for success it has been.

Thinking Arizona illustration by Tony Bustos

One of many findings in Thinking Arizona’s examination of the financial disclosure statements filed with the Secretary of State on Dec. 2 is that clean candidates for the Legislature in 2010 spent on average spent $35,300.  By comparison, traditional candidates spent on average $51,600.

The averages obscure the extremes.  Some traditional candidates, particularly incumbents running uncontested, had to spend only pennies.  Conversely, seven splurged beyond the $100,000 mark.  The biggest of the big was House Speaker Kirk Adams at $190,000.

The Clean Election Commission’s voter education manager, Michael Becker, responds by pointing out that “$100,000 candidates are not the norm.  $40,000 allows candidates to get their voice out there.”

Less Success This Year

True, but it’s also true that fewer of them won their races this year.  In recent elections, nearly half of the legislative victors did so with public funding.  This year it fell back to 2002 levels.  Barely more than a third of the seats – to be precise, 32 of 90 – were filled with Clean Elections participants.

Becker argues those figures will improve next time, given the experience of the 2010 election.  He maintains, “The public saw you could run viable campaigns and win elections without matching funds.”

Twenty of the seats won by the publicly-funded candidates, both incumbents and newcomers, came in districts that are dominated by one party or another.   The big challenge there, particularly in the Republican-dominated districts, is to win the primary election.

But publicly-funded candidates also won 12 seats, of the 27 available, in the nine districts in the state that are more hotly contested in the general election.  Incumbents and newcomers used a mix of funding methods.  In one district, all candidates ran clean.  In another, none did. 

It was possible, but no guarantee, for incumbents to run clean and fend off challengers running traditional. Three incumbents won doing that. Two others lost.  

The converse – a publicly-funded newcomer defeating a traditionally-funded incumbent – has been a virtual impossibility. 

Prior to the Republican revolt of 2010, challengers rarely won in any circumstance.  And they certainly didn’t do it with fewer campaign funds. Becker found it happened once in a legislative primary in 2006. But as for general elections, Thinking Arizona’s comparison of Clean Elections records with election results since the last redistricting in 2004 show that – even in the days when matching funds were available – no legislative challenger running clean had toppled an incumbent running traditional.

Peggy Judd managed in 2010 to become the exception to the rule.   

Logic says she would not be able to overcome the long odds against her.  However, while her war chest was small, she had other advantages:

  • Enthusiastic persistence.  Although she credits Fleming for working just as hard, Judd racked up many miles crisscrossing the massive district in a pickup truck.  A gregarious sort, she talked at each stop as long as she could get anyone to listen.
  • Name recognition.  Judd, an administrative assistant at a real estate company, has for two years headed Rex Allen Days, the signature event in Willcox, and served on the parks and recreation commission there for 10 years.  But she believes her name is known mostly due to her husband’s uncle, the late Sheriff Jimmy Judd, who gained local fame for his role in the 1982 shootout at Miracle Valley.
  • Shared expenses.  Judd ran as a team with District 25 Senate candidate Gail Griffin and her fellow Republican candidate for the House, incumbent David Stevens.  Several of their joint promotional efforts targeted the Obama-Pelosi-Reid “team.”

Ultimately, Judd feels that was her biggest advantage. 

Even if their Democratic opponents – Fleming, her fellow House candidate Ruben Ortega, and incumbent Sen. Manuel Alvarez – had nothing to do with Washington, she and her running mates capitalized on the anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent rage running across the land.  Judd’s assessment: “The people of the country are so angry with what’s going on.  They weren’t voting for us so much as they were voting against the regime in Washington.”

Big Differences In Turnout

Fleming wouldn’t necessarily argue that.  She believes she was further victimized by misinformation put out about her voting record in Phoenix, not Washington, which was difficult to correct.  What caught her and other Democrats most by surprise though was the turnout – lower than expected among Democrats, much higher among Republicans.  Many of those, she said in an interview, were first-time voters.

Judd, a Tea Party Patriot, must have struck a chord.  She talks of the two wings of the eagle.  The left, in her view, reaches out to the people to take care of them.  The right looks after the natural resources of the land, including its financial well-being.  “I’m right wing,” she declares. 

In a district that elected two Democrats and one Republican in each of the previous four elections, this time all three Republican candidates landed victories in a GOP sweep.  The results weren’t all that close.

Griffin and Stevens ran traditional, but Judd was one of a kind.  She stretched her $21,400 far enough to become the sole clean candidate in the state to defeat a better-bankrolled incumbent.

– Richard Gilman

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