Kevin McCormick is running for governor of Arizona with $6,500. Would you do something that crazy?
As a Libertarian, he faces voter petition laws that are more restrictive than ever before.
As a candidate, he faces pushback from many Libertarians for using a government resource unique to Arizona politics: The Clean Elections Commission.
How are tax dollars going to help a Libertarian run for public office on a “clean election” platform? Does this sound crazy? Maybe.
And, it might just work. I sat down with him to find out why.
Lindsay France: When you say you are running as a “clean elections candidate” what does that mean?
Kevin McCormick: The Clean Elections Commission is funded through donations and a 10% surcharge on civil and criminal fines. So how it works is, if I gain $5 donations from 4,000 residents of the state of Arizona, the Clean Elections Commission gives $840,000 to my campaign to run in the primaries, and another 1.1 million to run the general election campaign.
France: Well, that sounds just about perfect from where I sit because Libertarians are not known to be the greatest of donors.
McCormick: That is my argument with the Libertarians: "Guys, one of our biggest problems is fundraising, and this bill was designed to help out third party and independent candidates be able to run."
It passed 20 years ago as a voter ballot initiative aimed at helping political outsiders run for office – which is expensive. It limits how much I can donate to my campaign. It limits how much other people can donate to my campaign. I don’t disagree with this part - I can’t take donations from a PAC (political action committee) or corporation, only individuals.
France: I am guessing the part about the commission's funding partly coming from a surcharge on civil and criminal fines thing is a sore spot with the Libertarians?
McCormick: This is also the only area where I receive pushback within the party. I don’t believe in the public funding of candidates. The Libertarian Party doesn’t believe in the public funding of candidates. But this was a voter ballot initiative.
If you read the bill that’s what it says, ‘to restore citizen participation and confidence in our political system.’ The downside of it is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to make this really easy.
I also can’t give a loan to my campaign, which made it really hard to get up and running. The classic politics step is you give your own campaign a loan. And the max somebody can give me is $160.
So, I’ve gone out and talked to people who are willing to donate a lot more. And they can't give it to me. So it makes my $6,500 a little more impressive.
France: Did that make for a bit of a slow start?
McCormick: Yah, that was the sticking point when I decided to do this that I wasn't expecting it to be such a pain in the ass. And it is. We wanted to get the website up; I wanted to get campaign staff on board. And get this, the amount I can give my campaign and my extended direct family cannot total more than $1,460.
France: But you are also risking a lot running this way, don’t you think? The limitations are strict. And you are facing a general election against an incumbent Republican with big guns. Guns in this instance being money.
McCormick: I’m running against a Republican governor who raised almost $8 million in 2014 and who had dark money in PACs spend another 7 million on his campaign, and I can’t even give my campaign a loan up front. It’s really a pain in the neck.
The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is organizing and motivating the party, getting everything in motion. The AZLP (Arizona Libertarian Party) did a terrible job of a communicating to its members within the party.
If anyone ran and had a successful run, email lists weren’t saved, or worse, nobody knew what that person did or saved any information, the lists, the donors, which meant the candidate always had to start over from scratch and nobody ever shared lessons learned.
We didn’t have any of that, so we had to build all of that infrastructure up from scratch, start doing that, start making phone calls, emails… we had a ton of success doing that. I have personally so far called over two thousand people.
France: What are those two thousand people telling you?
McCormick: They had no idea that Republicans had changed ballot access in the state specifically to stop Libertarians from appearing on the ballot. There were a couple races where the Republicans felt that the Libertarian candidate caused them to lose. Or they felt like it was so close that next time they would lose. So they argued on the Senate floor that they cannot allow the Libertarians to be on the ballot. This was actually said during the Senate debates.
France: Ah. Good old HB 2608! A useful tool to keep out third parties. How have the last two years been for your voters?
(Side note for everybody: This 2015 Arizona law raised the number of signatures required to petition for a place on the state ballot. It went from one-half of one percent of a party’s voters to one-fourth of a percent. The Republicans and Democrats maintain 1.2 million and 1.1 million registered voters, respectively, in Arizona, so the requirement didn’t create a roadblock. But for the Libertarians, the formula took a pre-2015 requirement of around 134 names on a petition, and shot it up to more than 3,000 because the state’s 1.25 million independent voters were included. The judge said it wasn’t “unconstitutionally burdensome.”)
McCormick: In 2016, it was the first time in about 28 years that a Libertarian did not appear on the (general election) ballot in Arizona other than Gary Johnson for President of the United States. There was not a single state candidate on the ballot.
We sued, we lost our first suit. The first judge wouldn’t even take into consideration the discussion that happened on the Senate floor where hey said that they are doing this to stop Libertarians from running. It’s one of the reasons why I am running and one of the goals of my campaigns to bring forward the qualified candidates in the state.
Arizona is splintering. Our majority of “independents” are growing even larger because of the splintering in the Republican and the Democratic parties within our state.
In Arizona, the special interest groups and corporations have basically taken over our politics. The truth is, they own the Democrat and Republican parties. The groups aren’t just buying one, they’re buying them both so they don’t care which one wins. They know they’re going to be ok.
When a third voice comes in that isn’t owned by them, that just frustrates the special interest groups and they continue to try to keep us off the ballot.
France: So the Republicans pounced because they knew you were small and wanted to “small shame” you by forcing a minuscule increase in the signature requirement which would be easy for them to adhere to. Can you get enough signatures?
McCormick: I'm at 1,200 right now. I'm going to hit the over 4,000 signatures; we’re going to do it.
France: And what if they try to kick you off the debate stage so to speak?
McCormick: The main debates in the state are hosted by the Clean Elections Commission, and they do truly play an independent role. They will allow me into the debates as long as I’m on the ballot. And that’s a big help to us within the state which also highlights again why they did the ballot access changes.
We were being included in the debates before because we were going to be on the ballot, so their solution was to get us off the ballot. I’m going to be on the stage, and the current governor Doug Ducey and whoever the Democratic candidate is, is then going to have to refuse to do a debate with me. Because I will be invited and I will be there.
France: Interesting that they exempted the Green Party...
McCormick: We've decided with my campaign that we've got to bring this up more because no one knows this change happened except for people who are really involved in politics. And the thing is it makes people mad who are registered Republican or Democrat. They're like, "No I want to be able to sign some someone else's petition," and I've had quite a few people who have gone online and changed the registration because of the law.
The other thing is that Arizona makes it very easy to change your party affiliation and it takes about 5 minutes online.
France: What makes you hopeful about this race?
McCormick: Most people are not going to identify with one of the parties. People want to hear the Libertarian and Independent, third-party choices on the ballot. Everyone has been very excited about this campaign, so I know it's hitting home with a lot of people.
Arizona is a state that is big on personal freedom, individual rights, and a smaller government which really hits right into the core values of the Libertarian Party.
Author's Note: A second appeal of HB 2608 is in process. The state is set to respond in February 2018. If the appeal is successful it will have no effect on the upcoming election.