The Election Law Enforcement Commission says last month’s race for governor was the second most expensive in New Jersey history. That sounds shocking at first, but looking at the details, it makes sense and suggests a couple of beneficial campaign finance reforms.
This was a race that was never competitive and exceedingly unlikely to become so. A Republican following the two terms of unpopular Gov. Chris Christie in a blue state was a very long shot to begin with, and became well-nigh impossible when wealthy former Goldman Sachs exec Phil Murphy said he’d spend many millions of his own money to win the Democratic nomination and the governorship.
Nonetheless, campaign spending to reach this foregone conclusion topped $79 million, behind only the $88 million 2005 contest ($111 million adjusted for inflation) between another Goldman Sachs alumnus, Jon Corzine, and wealthy businessman Doug Forester.
As usual, a good part of this spending was by independent groups backing the candidates rather than by the campaigns themselves. The Democratic Governors Association, unions such as the New Jersey Education Association, an environmental group, Planned Parenthood and others spent $13 million on Murphy’s behalf. The Republican Governors Association even spent $2.4 million supporting his opponent, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, in what was one of only two gubernatorial races nationally.
Many partisans and some good-government types think the freedom of independent groups to support candidates is a problem, mainly because they might buy elections. But big spending by no means guarantees success — recent examples include the NJEA’s vain attempt to defeat state Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s re-election, Hillary Clinton’s losing presidential bid and Corzine’s failure to be re-elected.
We don’t see a pattern of spending by groups determining the outcome of elections, probably because with just a little effort voters can see such groups’ self-interest and ignore their frequent smear tactics. But more transparency on independent spending would be an improvement — maybe a general disclosure rather than identifying a specific target for partisan efforts to suppress or even boycott the supporters of opponents.
Murphy arguably did buy the primary election, spending $22.5 million of his own money lining up the party’s county chairmen and swamping his rival candidates.
But what should really concern campaign finance reformers is that, once he had the nomination locked up and could coast to the governor’s mansion, Murphy chose public financing for his general election campaign. That is supposed to help reduce the wealth disparities between candidates by limiting what they can spend and providing $2 in taxpayer money for each dollar they raise.
As the presumptive next governor, Murphy had no trouble raising money from those who wanted to be heard by his administration, so he got the maximum $9.3 million in public money for his campaign. Guadagno’s genuinely modestly funded campaign only qualified for $3.7 million.
Taxpayers shouldn’t be paying to increase the advantage of ultra-wealthy candidates.
The public financing law should be changed to require that candidates accept the spending limits and public money for both the primary and general elections or not at all. The people of New Jersey should at least get that for the extra $5.6 million they gave Murphy.