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Disarming the campaign war chests

Political incumbents get an unfair advantage from rules that let them hoard cash beyond a single election cycle.

Governor Charlie Baker greets supporters at a picnic in Shrewsbury in 2018 as he launched his reelection campaign.Jonathan Wiggs

If he decides to run for governor in 2022, former Boston mayor Marty Walsh will have a $5.1 million head start, thanks to the campaign war chest he amassed from donors who may have naively imagined they were supporting his mayoral reelection. If she runs for the corner office, Attorney General Maura Healey will have $3.3 million to draw from. And if Charlie Baker, who announced Tuesday he would not seek a third term, ever decides to seek another office, he’ll have about $700,000 in leftover campaign dough to knead. What’s more, since the three politicians raised much of that money in previous election cycles, they’d be free to hit up the same donors again for another check, allowing some of their supporters to effectively get around rules that are supposed to limit to $1,000 what any one person can give a state candidate in a single election year.

Nothing against Walsh, Healey, or Baker, but the way that Massachusetts candidates can build campaign accounts for one election, then carry them over to another, gives incumbents and those who have held public office previously a financial edge that just isn’t good for democracy. And it’s a bit of a scam on donors, too; some of Walsh’s supporters might not have given if they’d known the money would be used to run in a gubernatorial Democratic primary against Healey, and vice versa. None of the prospective candidates have done anything illegal or even unusual, but they have highlighted a longstanding weakness in the state’s incumbent-friendly campaign finance rules.


Indeed, although statewide candidates tend to raise the most money and attract the most attention, the problem created by carried-over campaign accounts is even more pernicious at the local level. A mayor or state representative can raise thousands of dollars every cycle, which scares off would-be opponents, allowing the incumbent to run unopposed — and then, in a vicious cycle, to raise and sock away even more money. State Senate President Karen Spilka, for instance, raised about $200,000 last year for an election campaign in which she ran unopposed. In 2020, 30 of the 40 state Senate races featured only one candidate.

Allowing candidates to carry over campaign accounts is just one more way the playing field is tilted against challengers and nontraditional candidates in Massachusetts. In much of the state, incumbents are listed first on ballots. They get to be identified as “candidates for reelection,” putting their political resume on the ballot. A large number of incumbents — including a third of Spilka’s fellow state senators — came into office in the first place in low-turnout special elections called on short notice that maximize the advantage of elected officials who already have campaign accounts with a balance (both of the main candidates in the state Senate special election in East Boston, for instance).


But at least when it comes to carried-over accounts, this structural advantage for incumbents could be changed. In Alaska, candidates can only carry forward a small portion of their campaign account from one election to the next, limited to $50,000 for gubernatorial candidates and less for lower offices; they have to spend the rest down by the Feb. 1 after the election. Although the law was challenged by the Alaska ACLU as a free speech infringement, it was upheld by the state’s highest court. The court there noted that when a candidate who is unopposed raises money and squirrels it away for a future election, they are effectively circumventing donation limits for that future election. In Washington state, candidates can keep leftover money, but only to run for the same office; they have to seek written permission from donors to use funds to seek a different office.


Since it’s the Legislature that would have to eliminate incumbent lawmakers’ own perk, we won’t hold our breath. But if Massachusetts were somehow to force candidates to use campaign funds in the race and cycle in which they were raised, the positive impact on the state’s political culture could be immediate and far-reaching. Candidates could still raise as much as they want, and donors could still give as much as they want. But candidates would have to start from scratch every cycle. Incumbents would lose the automatic fund-raising head start they have now over newcomers, and part of their unfair edge in special elections. Donors would know that the money that they give is used in the election cycle that they wanted to give it in. Of course, politicians like Walsh and Healey would still be formidable candidates. But who knows how many other good candidates, for offices from governor down to city councilor, Massachusetts loses because of laws that stack the deck against newcomers?

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated how often individuals can give $1,000 to political candidates in Massachusetts. It is an annual limit.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.