Campaign contribution limits are a longshot after Dunleavy sides with unlimited money

When the Alaska Public Offices Commission announced last week that it was erasing the limits on nearly every form of political contributions, it did so while calling on the Alaska Legislature to reinstate limits that would satisfy the issues raised in the court ruling that struck down the state’s previous limits.

That’s already a tall ask given it being the Alaska Legislature, but reinstating campaign finance limits ahead of this year’s election became near-impossible on Friday when Gov. Mike Dunleavy—who refused to appeal the court ruling, omitted contribution limits from his election “reform” bill and benefitted greatly from large unlimited contributions to an independent expenditure group backing his election in 2018—indicated that he was, in fact, fine with unlimited campaign contributions.

“You know me: I’m the guy that wants people to be able to drive four wheelers on the road. I’m a freedom guy,” he told the Anchorage Daily News. “My tendency is to just let people do what they want in campaign finance law, as long as it’s disclosed and it’s accurate.”

The story stops short of indicating whether Dunleavy was promising a veto of the measure, but it certainly injects the threat of a veto to any new limits. It effectively raises the bar for such legislation from a majority of the House and Senate to a combined total of 40 votes needed to pull off a legislative override. On that front, it’s important to point out that of the several legislative proposals to reinstate campaign contribution limits none have a Republican backer. Conversely, none of the Republican-backed election bills, including those put forward by Dunleavy, touch campaign contribution limits. Sen. Mike Shower, chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee where two of limit bills have languished, says he has other priorities.

At this point, it’s unlikely that such legislation will even reach his desk.

That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for campaign contribution limits in Alaska (and certainly doesn’t mean legislators backing these measures should drop them), but it likely means it will be a long road to restore limits. The most surefire vehicle would be through a voter initiative—which, at this point, wouldn’t appear on the ballot until 2024, meaning two statewide election cycles would be conducted without limits—or through a change in the governor’s office.

Gubernatorial candidates former Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, and former Anchorage Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat, have both signaled support for campaign contribution limits.

“I can tell you exactly how many times I’ve had an Alaskan come up to me and say that we need more money in politics: never,” Walker said in a prepared statement provided to The Midnight Sun. “Alaska’s old system was not perfect, but what it got right is a framework that encourages candidates to work hard and win financial support from people who live here and believe in a candidate’s vision for our state. What we are likely to see now, following the series of strange votes by APOC, is a scenario where one outside special interest group or a candidate’s wealthy sibling can massively influence our political process. The Legislature needs to correct this problem before the end of this year’s session.”

Gara released a lengthy news release laying out all of Dunleavy’s actions leading to this point.

“The Governor did everything he could to drown out the voices of ordinary Alaskans from the political process. Campaigns will now be a battle between those who donate for good policy, and those who donate to undermine the public interest for personal and corporate benefit. I fear the good Alaskans who donate for reasons that have nothing to do with their own personal benefit will be vastly outspent by those seeking profit for themselves and their businesses,” said Gara. “It’s a sad day when you have to ask Alaskans who care about the state to donate as much as they can, to prevent the purchase of our elections by those who donate millions out of self-interest. This could have been prevented.”

So, what does that all mean?

The impact on the Alaska’s political landscape, like every other significant change we’re seeing to this year’s election system, is yet to be seen. I’ve talked with a few people involved with campaigning, here’s some quick observations:

  • Big, unlimited campaign contributions could pose a political liability for the candidate, which means that independent expenditure groups and PACs—which operate at arms-length from the candidate with a wink and a nod—will still have a place in the campaign world. That said, funneling money through a candidate’s campaign has the benefit of that money taking advantage of the candidate-specific advertising rates, therefore maximizing the money.
  • While it may be appealing as a candidate to make a pledge against taking contributions over a certain size, it would be a strategically poor move. The unlimited contributions are the new rules of the game, one person explained.
  • Money in politics has its limits. As we’ve seen plenty in recent history, whoever has the most money is not automatically the winner. Winning requires a good-enough candidate, a competent-enough campaign and money.
  • Money in politics has diminishing returns at some point, particularly on the legislative levels where local media buys are not hitting the right audience.
  • All that said, it’s also quite possible that candidates taking big contributions is not the political liability that many would hope. After all, when’s the last time a contribution became a big political flashpoint, let alone impacted the outcome?
  • To an extent, it undercuts the political sway that unions, which are limited by how much they can gather through payroll deductions, can have in elections… which is probably part of the point with swinging the doors wide open.

Personally speaking, I’m keenly interested on how this impacts the state’s campaign regulators, which are set to see their budget shrink this year. Even in the best of times, Alaska’s campaign finance data system is a mess. There are loads of innocent-enough errors: typos in addresses (Anchorage, for example, has 18 different spellings in this year’s contributions alone), typos in names, inconsistent labeling and a general failure to follow directions.

There’s also plenty of holes in how the agency’s mission of transparency is undermined by groups that are increasingly seeing the agency’s fines as a cost of doing business. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson kept much of his campaign’s activities a secret to the public until far after he was already in the mayor’s office, paying a $38,500 fine for doing so. In an increasingly big pool of money, those fines will be an increasingly small drop.

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