Scores of Connecticut politicians reliant on public campaign financing got a stay of execution when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed the Republican budget last week, but some are still making contingency plans during the ongoing impasse over the state’s $3.6 billion deficit.

The fluid nature of the negotiations, which are entering their fourth month, has cast uncertainty over the state’s decade-old clean-elections program.

The GOP’s budget fix called for raiding $35 million from the Citizens’ Election Fund for 2018, creating potential upheaval for state office hopefuls who have spent as much as a year raising qualifying contributions for public aid.

A record number of candidates up and down the ballot are on pace to qualify for funds, including more than half a dozen gubernatorial hopefuls, who must each raise a total of $250,000 from at least 2,500 individual donors. That would unlock $1.4 million for the primary and $6.5 million for each party’s nominee in the general election.

A hallmark of the program is the $100 cap on individual contributions to curb the influence of special interests.

“We’ve already put in place a preliminary contingency plan in the event that the Citizens’ Election Program is eliminated,” said Tim Herbst, the Republican first selectman of Trumbull and candidate for governor. “I think it’s to recognize those people who wanted to give more than $100, but couldn’t and go back and ask for more.”

Toward ending abuses

Jolted by a pay-to-play scandal that led to the resignation and imprisonment of Gov. John G. Rowland, the state created the program to wean candidates off special-interest money and free them from the time required for fundraising. The program’s popularity has been on the rise, with $33.4 million awarded to 287 candidates for statewide office and the Legislature in 2014. Nearly half of that total — $15.8 million — was spent on the governor’s race.

Democrats almost universally howled when the Republican caucus leaders in the House (Themis Klarides) and Senate (Len Fasano) targeted the public campaign finance system for cuts. Among them is Chris Mattei, who led the prosecution of Rowland and is exploring a run for governor.

“Frankly, if the program was not in effect, people like me just wouldn’t be able to run,” said Mattei, who is from Hartford.

Elona Vaisnys, founder of CEProud, a League of Women Voters of Connecticut initiative to protect clean elections, said the investment is one worth making.

“It’s so basic to get special interest money out of elections,” said Vaisnys, who is from North Haven. “I’m hoping that CEP, it’ll be one of the negotiable parts of the budget that the Republicans will be convinced to keep for us.”

GOP leaders are warning of a $10 million shortfall in the program for 2018, however. Until now, the program has relied on proceeds from the sale of abandoned property and unclaimed bottle deposits to cover its cost.

Klarides said Republicans are open to compromise on suspending the program, but will try to override Malloy’s veto when legislators reconvene Oct. 10. Despite being a recipient of public funds herself in past elections, Klarides said the state simply doesn’t have the money to pay for campaign swag such as bumper stickers and water bottles, not at the expense of funding the social safety net.

“We still maintain that our budget is the best thing for the state of Connecticut, and we are pushing for the override,” said Klarides, who is weighing a run for governor.

There is at least one Democrat who seemingly stands to benefit if lawmakers suspend the program: Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim.

Exploring a run for governor, the mayor of the state’s largest city has been ruled ineligible for public funds by the state Elections Enforcement Commission because of his conviction for public corruption during his first stint at City Hall. Ganim is suing the commission, arguing that his exclusion is unconstitutional and tilts the playing field toward other gubernatorial contenders.

“You really can’t have a fair election for voters or even a fair primary if you have one candidate getting $8 million and another candidate getting zero dollars,” Ganim said. “I’m a very real and credible candidate in the democratic process garnering support around the state.”

Not counting in the money

Known for his fundraising chops, Ganim isn’t rooting for the demise of the program.

“I certainly support and laud the goals of the program that’s been put in place,” he said.

But Liz Kurantowicz, a former chief of staff for the Connecticut GOP and political consultant from Fairfield, said it would be unwise for candidates to assume the public money will be there.

“The thing about a campaign is you have to be nimble and capable of handling, whatever the circumstances throw at you,” she said.

Kurantowicz served as finance director during the 2006 governor’s race for Republican incumbent M. Jodi Rell, who was elected to her first full term after taking over for Rowland in 2004.

“Governor Rell announced her candidacy ... about 10 months before the 2006 election and she raised $4.1 million, with no primary contributions, and without accepting donations from lobbyists, state contractors or prospective state contractors,” Kurantowicz said. “So clearly it can be done.”

Herbst, who has raised about $200,000, said his campaign is prepared to recast its net for contributions outside Connecticut if the program is suspended. The current cap on out-of-state money is $25,000.

“I cannot blame Senator Fasano and Representative Klarides for putting this on the table,” Herbst said. “If I were in their position, I probably would have done the same thing.”

But Herbst said lawmakers should take into account how far along so many candidates on both sides of the aisle are in trying to qualify.

“So what I would recommend is, if they’re going to put it back on the chopping block, that they examine a plan to phase it out after the 2018 cycle,” Herbst said.