Opinion

Former Democratic Party chair attempts to break the campaign financing mold

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Ben Grant, the former chair of the Maine Democratic Party, is running for state representative for House District 41 in Portland.

Grant, an attorney and PTO board member among other things, is trying a novel approach to fundraising for his race.

Candidates can finance their campaigns in one of three ways: they can pay for it themselves, raise money from other people or opt in to the Maine Clean Election Act system of public financing.

Grant is trying to bridge the best elements of clean elections and traditional financing.

Clean Election candidates qualify for public financing by collecting $5 contributions for voters who live in their districts. For example, a candidate for the Maine House of Representatives must collect 60 qualifying contributions while a candidate for the state Senate has to collect 175.

House candidates receive an initial disbursement of $2,650 for a contested primary and $5,300 for a contested general election race. They can also unlock additional general election funding up to $10,300 by collecting more $5 contributions.

Contributions from individuals to traditionally financed legislative candidates are limited to $400 for the primary and $400 for the general election, for a total of $800 from one person or business.

Currently, no other candidates have filed for House District 41, but I expect a competitive primary for the Democratic seat, which is currently held by state Rep. Erik Jorgensen, who has served the maximum eight consecutive years allowed under term limits.

Grant is running a traditionally financed campaign, but with a wrinkle.

Instead of collecting $5 qualifying donations or chasing $400 checks, Grant is asking supporters to give $5 a month from now until November 2020.

That’s $65 bucks from each donor but spread out $5 at a time. Supporters can also make a one-time $5 contribution. If you try to give more, Grant says he won’t take it. “My dad already tried, and I refunded it,” Grant said in a Facebook post announcing his plan.

I’m a strong supporter of the Maine Clean Election Act. It helps to break down barriers to participation in state politics and helps to level the playing field for candidates who don’t have lots of friends who can write big checks.

But running clean also creates a disadvantage for candidates. It’s humbling to ask other people to fund your campaign, to call someone who you might not know and ask them to buy into your ideas and vision. Fundraising – for all its problems – forces candidates to talk with people who they might not otherwise know, and I think those connections can broaden perspectives on policy.

When someone makes a contribution to a candidate’s campaign, they are usually announcing their support, too. Helping a candidate qualify for clean elections isn’t the same kind of commitment.

As former chair of the Democratic Party, Grant has raised millions of dollars (he’s also served on the board of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections) and he’s probably as well connected as any candidate running for the state Legislature. If he wanted, I believe $400 checks would come rolling in.

Grant says he’s trying to marry the best elements of the clean election system and traditional fundraising.

“The essence of the problem in traditional fundraising is that you end up spending too much time asking too few people for too much money,” Grant said. “My plan is to turn this on its head: spend a small amount of time asking a lot people for a small amount of money.”

Grant says that he supports the clean election system, wants to expand it on the federal level and will advocate for it in the Legislature. That’s important to me.

“Clean elections is an important for some candidates and should be available to candidates who need it or want to use it,” Grant said.

When Grant told me about his plan, I signed up. Five dollars a month seems like a bargain – I was expecting a bigger ask. Plus, he promises not to send any annoying emails begging for dollars before the next “critical fundraising deadline.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pioneered low-dollar campaign fundraising. It was his secret weapon in 2016 and a number of other candidates have followed suit. But the best I can tell, they’re all willing to take bigger checks if someone wants to max out their financial contributions to the campaign.

I don’t know if Grant’s fundraising plan will work. To match the MCEA dollars – assuming he would hit the max in terms of qualifying contributions – he’d need about 280 people to sign up for his monthly giving program. That’s about 100 more than the number of contributors needed to receive the maximum in clean election funding.

Grant may be the first candidate to try this approach, but if he’s able to combine the best elements of traditional campaign financing and clean elections, he won’t be the last.

Plus, $5 a month seems like a bargain to get fewer desperate fundraising emails.

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