Despite a Republican winning last year’s gubernatorial election in Maryland using a public campaign finance system, the Montgomery County Republican Party is apparently not a fan of the county’s new public campaign finance law.
On Monday night, a representative of the county’s Republican Central Committee said the public financing system established by the law will not create more fair elections.
“[The legislation] purports to level the playing field, but it does no such thing,” Dick Jurgena said at a county-sponsored discussion of the new system. “An incumbent will find it much easier to raise the ante to play than a lesser-known challenger.”
Jurgena said the bill would have gone farther to entice new candidates to run if it was coupled with term limits to oust longtime incumbents. He asked why all the Democratic incumbents currently on the County Council supported it if the system was designed to make elections easier for challengers to contest.
He added that Republicans didn’t testify about the legislation before it was passed because all nine of the Democratic council members had sponsored it. Many of the council members were in the room Monday night for the discussion.
“It would have been a waste of time to testify against it, as it was already approved before it was voted on,” Jurgena said.
Jurgena’s comments came immediately after Council President George Leventhal said the campaign finance bill represents a bipartisan experiment. Leventhal said the Monday night discussion was one of the first times he could remember where representatives from the Republican and Democratic Central Committee had come together to cosponsor an event.
The new public finance system provides County Council and county executive candidates matching funds on small contributions. The council passed the legislation in October and budgeted $1 million this year to begin funding the campaign account for candidates running in the 2018 election cycle.
In order to qualify to receive county funds, candidates must accept only contributions from individuals between $5 and $150 and receive a minimum number of contributions, for example 500 contributions for a county executive campaign.
Those funds would be matched by the county at different ratios—for example, a candidate for county executive would receive $6 for each dollar for the first $50 of a qualifying contribution, while a County Council at-large candidate would receive $4 for each dollar of the first $50 received from a county resident.
Under the formula, a county executive candidate could receive a maximum of $750,000 in county funds. The council maximum is $250,000 for an at-large candidate and $125,000 for a district candidate.
Former County Council member Phil Andrews was the lead sponsor of the legislation and said Monday it was something he had worked on for 13 years before finally getting it approved. Montgomery was the first county in the state to enact a law creating a public financing fund for elections.
Andrews said the law will hopefully encourage grassroots campaigns and tie candidates to constituents. He also said it provides incentives for candidates to pursue small donors rather than large donors and special interest groups capable of contributing thousands of dollars.
Andrews called the law “the strongest measure in the nation to encourage small donations.”
Jared DeMarinis, the director of the Maryland Board of Election’s candidacy and campaign finance division, said Monday the county’s law has a “nice twist” that adapts it to the current campaign spending landscape—where outside groups often come in late in elections to contribute large amounts for a candidate’s final push for votes.
DeMarinis noted the state’s system has a cap that limits how much a candidate can spend on a campaign, which could enable a challenger not using public financing to significantly outspend a candidate once the cap is hit.
The Montgomery law allows candidates to continue to raise funds even if their campaign hits the maximum allowed for matching contributions. Once the maximum is hit, the candidate won’t receive any more funds from the county, but can still accept contributions up to $150.
In the 2014 gubernatorial election, Republican candidate Larry Hogan, who used the public campaign financing system, hit the $2.6 million fundraising cap late in his campaign against Democrat Anthony Brown. However, Hogan was bolstered by outside spending by the Republican Party, which made his total spending in the general election comparable to Brown’s. Hogan and the Republicans spent a little more than $5 million on his general election campaign, while Brown and the Democrats spent $6.6 million on the general election, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Under the Montgomery law, candidates who receive public financing can’t accept funds from any group—including local political party committees.