Only two of the eight Democrats vying to replace Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in 2018 say they might seek public matching funds for their primaries, which Hogan did during his underdog run nearly four years ago.
Most of the candidates, who are scrambling to raise money, said the state's public financing system comes with too many restrictions and would not provide enough money for a competitive bid.
Krishanti Vignarajah , a former policy aide for first lady Michelle Obama, and Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) said they are considering participating in the program, which provides a dollar-for-dollar match for donations of $250 or less, until available funds are exhausted.
To qualify, candidates must agree not to exceed an expenditure limit in the primary and the general election that is equal to 47 cents for every resident of the state — about $2.8 million next year. They also must raise a minimum of about one-tenth that, or $280,000, in small-dollar donations.
Proponents say the public financing system makes it possible for lesser-known candidates to fund a campaign and reduces the importance of large corporate donations. But advocates and several people involved in this year's campaigns say statewide races have grown so expensive — and Hogan has stockpiled so much money for his reelection bid — that the restrictions that accompany the matching funds are untenable.
"We're disappointed that the funds are essentially not available for the program to be successful, because we know it can be," said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland Public Interest Research Group. "There just isn't enough there to remain competitive with those who aren't using it."
Mike Morrill, a Democratic strategist, said he was not surprised most of the candidates are shunning the fund, especially since the race has no front-runner.
"Every single one of them looks at the race and says 'I have a chance to be in the final sprint,' " Morrill said. "Public financing is like tying one of your legs off in the final sprint. If you are in the sprint, you need to go full throttle."
Several campaigns have reached out to the state Board of Elections to inquire about the program, said Jared DeMarinis, the board's director of campaign finance.
But officials from the campaigns of Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, policy consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross and attorney Jim Shea said they have no plans to use state funding.
A spokesman for Vignarajah said she is considering public financing. Her campaign got off to a shaky start amid questions about her eligibility to run and her voter and residency history.
Madaleno said he might seek public matching funds because if he does, he would be exempt from a prohibition on state lawmakers fundraising during their 90-day session that begins in January.
"I have a different circumstance than everyone else," said Madaleno, the only state elected official in the Democratic primary race. "As the only candidate who is impacted by the fundraising ban . . . we're taking a look at how the ability to fundraise during session would impact the campaign."
The $2.8 million available for the June primary and November's general election comes from optional donations made by taxpayers when they file their tax returns and some money allocated from the state's general fund. Half is available for the primary, half for the general.
If more than one candidate participates, DeMarinis said, the funding would be split.
Hogan, the first candidate to win an election using the state's public financing system, last year proposed diverting $1.8 million from the general fund to help replenish the program. The legislature reduced the amount to $1 million.
Earlier this year, Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) introduced a bill that would allocate $5 million to the fund in fiscal 2022. The bill died in committee.
Common Cause of Maryland has been pushing the General Assembly to replenish the fund, said Damon Effingham, the group's legal and policy director. He noted that Montgomery County recently launched its own matching-funds program, Howard County is moving toward organizing one, and Prince George's is discussing it.
"We'd like to make sure the fund is viable in the future" for state races, Effingham said.
The state program, which was set up in the 1970s, was originally funded through the tax form checkoff box, which allowed taxpayers to contribute up to $500. The box was removed in 2010 because candidates were not participating in the program, and the money from the fund was being used for other election-related purposes.
In 2014, Hogan and former Del. Heather Mizeur became the first candidates in 20 years to tap the fund. The governor received a total of $2.9 million for the primary and general election, while Mizeur received $780,000 from the fund in her failed bid for the Democratic nomination. Both were facing better-known, better-financed challengers.
The legislature restored the income tax checkoff box the next year to replenish the fund.
Andrew Mallinoff, Baker's campaign manager, said he looked into the program when he started working on Baker's campaign, but decided the spending limits would tie the campaign's hands.
"We were putting the budget together and wanted to look at all the options on the table," he said.