By Rhonda Bodfield and Hipolito Corella
Results from Tuesday's primary election are sparking debate about whether taxpayers are getting their $18 million worth of reforms out of the state's new law that provides public campaign financing.
Voters narrowly passed Clean Elections in 1998 after supporters painted it as a law that would reduce the effect of special interests while giving a wider range of candidates a valid shot at public office.
The law was supposed to generate more lively debate and boost long-sagging voter turnout numbers.
That never surfaced in its first run in 2000, when voters decided only a smattering of legislative races and Corporation Commission seats.
So in its first big trial run, the final tally was a mixed bag, although by straight numbers, Clean candidates fared OK. Of the 158 candidates winning primary races, 84 were publicly funded.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary, former Congressman Matt Salmon leveraged traditional campaign sources to breeze to victory over two publicly financed candidates.
In the GOP race for superintendent of public instruction, two publicly financed candidates were stung by a candidate who sank nearly $500,000 into his own campaign.
The Democratic underdogs, despite a level financial playing field, never got within striking distance of Attorney General Janet Napolitano, who barely waged a primary campaign.
On the Northwest Side, three traditionally funded candidates slugged it out for two District 26 House seats while the publicly financed candidate wasn't even a player.
There were some successes. Republican Andrew Thomas rallied his conservative base to defeat two traditionally funded candidates for the attorney general nomination. Jim Irvin, a Republican Corporation Commission incumbent, held onto his seat using public campaign money, despite a challenge from a traditionally funded candidate.
Clean Elections Institute booster Cecilia Martinez was happy with the outcome.
"We haven't seen a contested statewide Republican primary like this for a long time and I think it's because Clean Elections provided enough money for candidates to run a competitive race."
Phoenix pollster Earl de Berge said he's not sure it produced sweeping change.
"I think because there was more variation, more choice, it was a benefit. People who otherwise might not have run did get in the race," de Berge said. "But on the other hand, it didn't seem to stimulate the vote very much. There was a very low level of turnout and it raises in my mind the question about whether the debate got any better and whether what was proposed to the public got any better."
For all the hope of higher turnout, considering most of the Republican races were contested, about 20 percent of registered voters statewide cast a ballot. In Pima County, it hovered at 28 percent.
Clean Elections is not an inexpensive proposition. Voters put about $1 million each into the campaigns of Betsey Bayless and Carol Springer, while giving Democratic candidates Alfredo Gutierrez and Mark Osterloh $500,000 each.
Robert J. Franciosi of the conservative Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute think tank, said that despite that investment, Clean Elections did little to change the status quo in state politics.
"I don't see it having that big of an effect in the bigger races," Franciosi said of primary-night results. "I think it's definitely a waste of money."
Franciosi said voter participation remained stagnant and debates on the issues, for the most part, took a back seat to front-runners' expected wins.
"So we got to see a bunch of commercials of Mark Osterloh on his bicycle," Franciosi said of the Tucson ophthalmologist whose television ads showed him pedaling across the state for votes. "How much did that contribute to the election?"
Even in the GOP primary for attorney general - the single statewide race where a Clean Elections candidate dominated traditionally and better-funded opponents - it was the message rather than Clean Elections that likely led to victory, he said.
In that race, Andrew Thomas clobbered former state Senate President John Greene and Phoenix lawyer Foster Robberson, who relied on contributions and loans rather than state voters to fund their campaigns.
Thomas spent $178,272 under the state's Clean Elections law and was likely helped by a niche appeal in a three-way-split race.
Greene reported spending $190,000 in his pre-primary campaign financial report late last month while Robberson spent $149,000.
But Thomas credited the law with his victory. "It's very hard for me to see how without sufficient funding even the most supremely qualified candidate can win a statewide election," he said. He and Democrat Terry Goddard will get $130,000 each for the general election.
Others say it's too early to criticize Clean Elections.
Phoenix pollster Bob Grossfeld said what hurt the Clean Elections candidates had more to do with timing than with anything else.
"Setting aside the fact that Napolitano was the clear front-runner, she got her money as soon as it was humanly possible - everybody else dragged in after that. On the Republican side, the roll of the dice Salmon made by not going with Clean fund-raising allowed him to get up and operational faster than his two opponents. I think if Bayless and/or Springer had gotten qualified months earlier, it could have changed the outcome of that race."
"For next time around, there are lessons to be learned from that one," Grossfeld said.
Osterloh, too, defended the law. "There were some people who ran with big bucks and pulled it off, but people are still getting used to it. It will have more impact with time, when people realize the different kind of representation they'll get with candidates who aren't beholden to outside groups."
Osterloh said if there were lessons to be learned, it's that the law should be tweaked to forbid what Napolitano did in using special-interest groups to leverage qualifying contributions. And, he added, even with a level financial playing field, candidates running against those with high name recognition will have trouble.
He noted he started with no name recognition and climbed from 1 percent in early polls to collecting nearly 15 percent of the Democratic vote in the primary. "Napolitano was the front-runner, but would you really like a race where hers is the only name on the ballot?"
"You can't judge the whole thing on one election. Wait five or six elections down the line before we decide its impact."