While his Republican colleagues battle the new McCain-Feingold law in the courts, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is focused on dismantling a state campaign finance reform measure that he contends has made politics in the Grand Canyon State dirtier than ever.
“Arizona’s facing a huge budget deficit and the notion that we’re giving money to politicians to run for office seems rather obscene,” Flake said in an interview Wednesday. “It goes without saying, that when you have taxpayer-financed elections, you’re going to have dirtier elections than you’d otherwise have. When somebody’s running on the taxpayers’ dime, the normal checks and balances don’t apply.”
But Flake’s critics charge that the second-term Congressman is using the issue as a platform to increase his name recognition to help fuel a potential 2004 Republican primary bid against Sen. John McCain.
Flake, 40, signed a term-limits pledge committing to serve only three terms in Congress, and he recently told reporters he is considering a GOP primary challenge to McCain, who has gained national recognition for his successful efforts to reform the federal campaign finance system.
Flake — who appears to be the only member of the Arizona House delegation willing to take on the 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran — is expected make a decision by summer, but seemed wary of committing himself to a Senate bid this week.
“All I’m saying is I’m inclined to run for reelection for my House seat at this point,” Flake offered.
In the meantime, Flake has formed a political committee to help gather more than 100,000 signatures needed to repeal the Clean Elections Act passed by voters in 1998 — a move that has been met with suspicion by supporters of Arizona’s optional public financing system for state elections and other campaign finance reform initiatives.
“There are so many federal issues that the Congressman should be involved with, I have no idea why he is taking this on as a mission of his,” said Barbara Lubin, executive director of the Clean Elections Institute in Phoenix.
“I’m sure he doesn’t like the Clean Elections law, but he’s probably trying to promote his name to get higher name ID for some future run for higher office,” surmised Lubin, who herself became the first Clean Elections candidate when she ran for the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2000.
Matt Keller, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the pro-McCain-Feingold group Common Cause, called Flake’s efforts to repeal the state law a “cheap ploy to get name recognition.”
While Keller conceded that there is a “concrete effort nationwide to attack campaign finance reform measures wherever they’ve passed,” he called Flake’s move a “way for Congressman Flake to attack Senator McCain without having to be personal about it.”
Both Lubin and Keller noted that Flake’s uncle, Arizona House Speaker Jake Flake (R), has publicly vowed to halt any bills introduced in the state Legislature to reform or repeal the Clean Elections law, preferring instead to let his nephew take the lead on the issue.
But in an ironic twist, Flake’s mission may inadvertently be derailed because of McCain.
As an aide to Flake explained Wednesday, the Congressman is concerned that his statewide effort to repeal the Clean Election Act could run afoul of the new Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, authored by McCain.
Flake hopes to get Arizona voters to approve a ballot measure creating a constitutional amendment that would prohibit taxpayer money from being used in campaigns for statewide office.
Last week, GOP campaign finance lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg wrote to the Federal Election Commission asking for an advisory opinion on whether Flake may legally appear on the Arizona state ballot as a Congressional candidate in 2004 and lead the statewide repeal effort at the same time.
Until Flake gets the go-ahead from the FEC, aides said his activities are on hold.
“We’re putting out a press release on it to let everyone know that there’s a temporary lull in that campaign,” Flake spokesman Matt Specht said.
As Flake awaits guidance from the FEC, his supporters dismissed the notion that the Congressman was trying to get extra mileage out of his effort to repeal the Clean Elections law and said it’s simply an issue about which he feels passionate.
“I don’t think that’s going to make that much difference one way or another,” said David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, a national anti-tax group that has been talking to Flake about a Senate bid.
Continued Keating: “By the time it would generate any name recognition, if it does, it seems to me it’s too late in the process to really make that much difference.”
Arizona’s Republican primary is slated for September 2004, while any effort to repeal the Arizona Clean Elections Act would not appear on the ballot until November.
Flake said he decided to take on the Clean Elections law long before any talk of a potential Senate run. He contends that Clean Elections proponents would probably find fault with anyone targeting public financing.
“If it was somebody in Arizona who held statewide office [who was challenging the law], they would criticize him for being self-interested,” Flake said. “This law does not apply to me. Then I’m accused of doing state issues when I ought to be concerned with federal matters.”
As for the potential Senate bid, Keating admits that Flake’s chief hurdle in trying to upset McCain would be message more than money.
“You don’t need to match an incumbent dollar for dollar to win, you just need to get his message out,” Keating said. “The question is, how much money he could raise and get his message out and get voters to the polls?”
The Club for Growth, which lends financial and grassroots support to conservative GOP candidates who “support the Reagan vision of limited government and lower taxes,” helped Flake in his first House bid in 2000.
Club for Growth President Stephen Moore has been courting Flake and encouraging him to run against McCain in 2004 because McCain has been a leading Republican opponent of President Bush’s proposed tax cut.
Flake, meanwhile, has proved his fiscal conservatism, as well as his support for budget control, tax reduction and fighting pork spending, Moore said.
“Jeff is completely undecided,” Moore said on Wednesday. “I just had a long conversation with him this weekend and he’s keeping his options open.”
Moore is so confident that Flake has a “superstar” appeal, however, that he’s pledged to start a “Draft Jeff Flake Campaign” in Arizona among Club for Growth members that he said will get under way in a month or so.
Political observers note that a bloody GOP primary in Arizona could encourage Democrats to throw their hat in the ring, although it’s unclear who would take the gamble. Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson has been mentioned as a potential candidate because he is a wealthy businessman.
But a more intriguing candidate may be former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, a Republican who is said to be toying with the idea of switching parties and who has been mentioned as a potential successor to McCain or Sen. Jon Kyl (R) when they opt to retire.
Under the Clean Elections law in Arizona, in 2002, some 30 of 39 statewide candidates and 110 out of 221 legislative candidates took advantage of the law that provides them with public money if they agree to abide by spending limits. But Flake and other critics of the law complained that it was a scam on the taxpayers, who footed the bill for negative attack ads like the one run by Richard Mahoney, an independent gubernatorial candidate in 2002.
With $1.7 million in public funding, Mahoney attracted few votes but plenty of attention when he ran a controversial ad suggesting that because his Republican opponent Matt Salmon is a Mormon he would be unlikely to crack down on a polygamist sect in a remote corner of Arizona that has been accused of sexual abuse and other crimes. Flake, who is also Mormon, has said that he found the ads offensive.