Photo: Hearst Connecticut Media File Photo
Since the advent of public campaign financing a decade ago in the state, there has been a growing reticence among Republicans and Democrats with statewide political ambitions to declare themselves candidates.
Not when they can create an exploratory committee, which have higher contribution limits, no expenditure caps and allow for more wiggle room to pursue different offices.
The trend is not without critics, such as Shelton’s longtime GOP mayor, Mark Lauretti, who is running for governor for a third time since 2010.
“Exploring, that’s for Lewis and Clark, for all you history buffs,” Lauretti said. “I’m one of these people who know what they want to be when they grow up.”
More than a dozen gubernatorial hopefuls have formed exploratory committees for 2018, double the number of declared candidates for the state’s highest office. Most of the top contenders have gone the exploratory route.
“It’s a smarter play to go with the exploratory,” said Danbury’s longtime GOP mayor, Mark Boughton, who is testing the waters for a third run for governor.
Exploratory committees can hit up individual contributors for up to $375, compared to $100 for declared candidates under the state’s clean election program. Once they take the next step, candidates must either return $275 and put $100 toward public campaign financing or keep it all and go back to those contributors for an additional $100 to count toward public campaign financing.
Governor candidates can qualify for $1.4 million for the primary and $6.5 million for the general election by raising $250,000 in contributions in $100 increments or less. The threshold is $75,000 for lieutenant governor candidates, who can get $406,275 for the primary and $812,550 for the general election.
After his running mate abandoned him in 2014, Boughton drafted Lauretti to join him on the ticket so the pair could pool funds to get to the $250,000. Lauretti had raised more than $100,000 for his own campaign for governor, which stalled at the state GOP’s convention.
Because Lauretti’s haul was purposed for governor, he faced the challenge of having to solicit those same contributors to give him money for a lieutenant governor run. Ultimately, Lauretti failed to collect enough signatures to join Boughton on the primary ballot, a death knell for both candidates.
“Mark Lauretti is a classic example of why you should go exploratory,” Boughton said. “Now if he had an exploratory committee, then we could have easily merged the two committees and been done.”
Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Dan Drew, the mayor of Middletown, raised more than $105,000 for his exploratory committee during the first three months of the year.
“I’m using the exploratory committee the way it was meant to be used,” Drew said. “The point here is to figure out whether you want to run and if the support is there or not. Figuring out how it all works and really understanding it well, I think, is the purpose of the exploratory committee.”
When potential candidates fill out the form to create an exploratory committee, it is for unspecified statewide office. Political insiders say that’s a benefit because it allows for flexibility.
But some say that’s where the lines can get blurred, especially for those who have indicated a specific race to supporters in fundraising letters and other communications.
“I think it’s a little bit of the wild west out there,” said Liz Kurantowicz, a former chief of staff for the Connecticut GOP and political consultant from Fairfield.
In a 2009 ruling, the state Elections Enforcement Commission cautioned would-be office seekers with exploratory committees to avoid characterizing themselves as candidates.
“We don’t police statements,” said Joshua Foley, an agency lawyer and spokesman.
But when the commission receives a complaint, Foley said, it actively investigates the matter and adjudicates it. He cited a 2010 complaint against Kevin Lembo by his Democratic primary foe, Michael Jarjura, in the state comptroller’s race.
Jarjura complained that Lembo established himself as a candidate for lieutenant governor while Lembo was in exploratory mode. Lembo sent out a news release declaring his interest in the lieutenant governor’s office and was introduced by the state party chairwoman at the time as a lieutenant governor candidate during the Democrats’ marquee fundraiser.
The commission ruled that Lembo should have dissolved his exploratory committee and created a candidate committee for lieutenant governor. Lembo opted to abandon $16,240 in qualifying contributions from his exploratory committee that were flagged. He still qualified for public financing and went on to win the election for comptroller.
“What happened was he ended up forfeiting a lot of money,” Foley said. “Anything that happens after you make that public declaration can’t be considered a qualifying contribution. So there’s a danger.”
Lembo is now exploring a run for governor. His adviser, Marla Romash, pointed out that 2010 was the first statewide election with the public financing system in place and that there was a learning curve for candidates.
“Kevin has always and will always abide by the spirit and letter of the law and beyond,” Romash said. “Exploratory committees make sense because they give candidates an important opportunity to get around the state, listen to people, hear what’s on people ’s minds and to make a thoughtful decision.”