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Can Candidates Running In Maryland Say 'No' To ALL Special Interest Money and Still Win?

Julio Cortez

Maryland’s gubernatorial campaigns are increasingly being funded by corporate interests and out-of-state donors, according to a report released Wednesday by the advocacy group Maryland PIRG.

According to the report, candidates for Maryland governor, regardless of party, spent more than $4 million on average in the primary and an additional $4.5 million in the general election.

Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, says more than 80 percent of that money came from PACs, special interest groups, and wealthy donors.

“Large contributions are playing an outsize role in our elections and overshadowing small donations,” she says.

Now, candidates planning to run for governor in 2022 can choose to take advantage of Maryland’s Fair Campaign Finance Fund. 

The fund matches every individual donor contribution up to $250, but under the law, candidates also can collect thousands from PACs and special interest groups.

Gov. Larry Hogan took advantage of the state’s public financing fund in 2014, because “he was incredibly outspent,” says Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

But he won, and that changed everything.

“Once he became governor, [Hogan] was able to tap into this larger network and didn’t use it when he ran for re-election,” says Eberly.

That speaks to the advantage the incumbent has in most elections, Eberly says.

“Once you’re in office, you have access to a network that enables you to solicit large money donations from organizations as well as from individuals outside of your state,” he explains. “That gives you a natural advantage over someone who would try to raise the funds against you.”

Scarr, one of the authors of the report, says that’s why the state needs fresh campaign finance reform. The Fair Campaign Finance Fund, established in the 1970s, isn’t working anymore, she says.

“The cost to run for office has gotten so high, that if a candidate wants to run a competitive race, it’s in their best interest to raise as much money as possible from whomever possible.”

But it’s in the public’s best interest to “enable candidates to rely on small donors from Maryland residents,” she adds.

She says Maryland PIRG wants to adjust the current system so that candidates who sign on would receive matching funds from Marylanders up to $3 million.  And they wouldn’t be allowed to take money from special interests or corporations.

Eberly says those changes would make it clear that the money is coming from individuals – and that no lobbying group is influencing a particular candidate. But choosing to fund one’s campaign this way is also burdensome, he adds.   

“It makes it cleaner it doesn’t make it more attractive.”

Nationally, gubernatorial races have become very competitive and extremely expensive, he says.  In some states, the power a governor has often makes the race a prime target for outside groups.

“If that governor is going to have some control over the re-districting process, it becomes crucial that one party or the other wins that governor’s race. And that’s why the money comes from outside of the state. You’re looking at the national implications of the outcome of the race,” Eberly says.

And by “national implications” he means the make-up of the House of Representatives, which is affected by the redistricting process.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.