Money Talks

It might come as a surprise that Arizona has — well, had — one of the more interesting campaign-finance laws in the country. If you signed on, the state would hand you a pile of cash, as is customary. But the state would also hand you more cash if your non-subsidized opponent money-bombed yer ass. And the state would hand you even more cash if a third-party group money-bombed your opponent — or decided to go all Willie Horton on you.

In other words, Arizona served as an aggressive retailer, meeting or beating any opponent’s offer. The more they raised, the more you got.

Until Monday, when the Supreme Court deemed that unfair competition.

There are two separate issues at work here: matching the expenditures of wealthy opponents, and matching the expenditures of third-party groups. John Roberts, writing for the inevitable 5-4 majority, frequently confuses the two by combining them in his argument. For reasons too long to explain here, we think he has a point with the latter. But the way he joins them at the hip, it’s very difficult to find a clear statement of his problem with the former.

Let’s try this:

Once a privately financed candidate has raised or spent
more than the State’s initial grant to a publicly financed candidate, each personal dollar spent by the privately financed candidate results in an award of almost one additional dollar to his opponent. That plainly forces the privately financed candidate to “shoulder a special and potentially significant burden” when choosing to exercise his First Amendment right to spend funds on behalf of his candidacy.

So: What’s the burden? I’m still free to spend as much as I want, right?

Here the benefit to the publicly financed candidate is the direct and automatic release of public money.

If you follow the logic — and trust us, it’s okay if you don’t — it’s an unconstitutional burden on a wealthy candidate’s First Amendment rights if his publicly financed opponent is given matching funds.

And think of the horror if our wealthy Gulliver is opposed by multiple publicly financed Lilliputians:

If the spending cap were exceeded, each dollar spent by the privately funded candidate would result in an additional dollar of campaign funding to each of that candidate’s publicly financed opponents. In such a situation, the matching funds provision forces privately funded candidates to fight a political hydra of sorts. Each dollar they spend generates two adversarial dollars in response.

In other words: I’m free to flood the local market with a thousand campaign ads. But in doing so, the state will give my opponents the money to flood the market with a thousand campaign ads each of their own. This is a burden on my free-speech rights, because now they can shout as loud as I can.

Because, honestly: If I can’t outspend my opponents ten-to-one, who the fuck will listen to me?

Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett [Supreme Court/PDF]
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