The court's 5-4 ruling on Wednesday was unsettling for many
Washington fundraisers, donors and lobbyists who were comfortable
with federal rules that had limited total donations to candidates
and party groups to $123,200 in the 2014 election cycle.
Now, thanks to the court's decision in McCutcheon v. Federal
Election Commission, donors who are able to give millions of dollars
to candidates and their parties will see their influence expanded — much as it was by a 2010 ruling that inspired the creation of
independent "Super PACs" and other groups that could receive
Both rulings are part of a series of decisions by the
conservative-led Supreme Court that have given big-money donors more
influence in U.S. elections.
Republicans, who generally favor lifting finance limits, have
praised the rulings as a boost to political free speech. Democrats,
who typically argue for tighter restrictions based on concerns that
the wealthy otherwise could have undue influence over American
politics, have criticized the court's ruling.
On Thursday, there was a sense in both parties that Republicans and
other boosters of free spending in elections not only were winning
the legal war over campaign finance, but were likely to keep winning
The Supreme Court's ruling a day earlier dealt with federal election
laws, but 12 states and Washington, D.C., also have some type of
contribution limits to candidates and parties that could be
In Maryland, which has limited donations to party committees in
state elections to $10,000 every four-year election cycle, state
regulators already have told election lawyers that they will stop
enforcing the limit, said David Mitrani, a lawyer who specializes in
campaign finances cases.
Massachusetts officials also said they would stop enforcing the
state's limit on candidate donations, but are reviewing a limit on
contributions to political parties.
Other states with such limits almost certainly will face lawsuits
challenging the limits, Mitrani said.
Bobby Burchfield, an attorney who represented Republican Senate
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Wednesday's case, forecast a
similar scenario on the federal level.
Burchfield said that he and others who are part of a "merry little
band of constitutional lawyers who work in this area" envision a
range of potential challenges to federal campaign finance limits,
including restrictions on spending by political parties.
A key question hanging over the campaign finance war is whether the
most fundamental contribution limits in U.S. politics — those that
restrict what an individual can donate to a single candidate ($2,600
per election) or a political party committee ($32,400 per election) — might be in jeopardy.
James Bopp, another election lawyer who specializes in cases
challenging campaign finance laws and was involved in Wednesday's
case, said he believes there are legal grounds to go after the
"I handle a lot of cases," he said, "and I'm not done yet."
"FAR ABOVE MY HEAD:
Bopp, who is based in Terre Haute, Indiana, joined lawyer Dan Backer
in representing Shaun McCutcheon, a conservative Alabama businessman
who sued the FEC because he wanted to give the maximum allowable
donations to more candidates and party groups than the federal cap
of $123,200 would allow.
The Republican National Committee and McConnell joined the case in
support of McCutcheon.
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In Wednesday's ruling, the Supreme Court's conservative majority
said the "aggregate" limits on contributions to candidates, parties
and political action committees violated the First Amendment of the
U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech. The majority rejected
the argument that the limits are needed to prevent corruption of
Analysts characterized the ruling as undoubtedly good
for wealthy donors who can give millions of dollars to candidates
and political parties.
But it might not be so good for donors who are wealthy enough to
have given candidates and political parties up to the maximum of
$123,200 for the 2013-14 election cycle, but are not able or
inclined to give even more.
"I used to be able to be finished at $123,200," one major Democratic
donor said of his total political contributions for a two-year
"That was pretty much a lot, and it was a nice feeling when I was
done," the donor said. "Now I guess the limit is $3.5 million or
something, which is so far above my head it's ridiculous."
Many Washington lobbyists who are fundraising targets of campaign
and parties fall into this category of donors who have a tradition
of giving the legal maximum, but cannot match the spending by
high-profile billionaires such as Charles and David Koch, who have
spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding independent political
groups that support Republicans.
"For those (lobbyists) on K Street that thought they were doing a
good job of fundraising, they now could be somewhat marginalized
under this new system that's dominated by those even wealthier,"
said Jim Manley, a senior director at QGA Public Affairs and a
former longtime aide to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry
One clear winner from Wednesday's ruling will be the political
parties and their committees, whose sudden ability to take in
seven-figure donations will boost their status relative to the Super
PACs and nonprofit groups that already are pumping out TV ads for
the November 4 elections.
Charlie Spies, a Republican lawyer who co-founded Restore Our
Future, the Super PAC that backed Mitt Romney in the 2012
presidential election, said empowered parties could be a good thing
in presenting both sides of political issues.
"You'll be strengthening political parties, and that probably leads
to more moderated discourse, because parties tend to be more
responsible actors than more short-term, outside groups," Spies
David Bossie, president of Citizens United, the conservative
advocacy group whose lawsuit led to the 2010 court ruling that paved
the way for unlimited spending and fundraising by independent Super
PACs and nonprofit groups, agreed.
"Candidates will be able to raise a few more dollars. But the
Democratic and Republican Party committees will benefit."
(Editing by David Lindsey, Howard Goller and Eric Walsh)
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