WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruling Wednesday erasing a long-standing limit on campaign donations will allow a small number of very wealthy donors to give even more than is currently the case, according to students of the complex campaign finance system, and could strengthen the establishment in both parties.
While Republicans cheered the ruling on philosophical grounds and Democrats criticized it, there was a general agreement that the decision itself was unlikely to benefit one party over another.
“This is not a decision that advantages one party over the other. It advantages wealthy people over everybody else,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
On a 5-4 ruling, the court struck down a limitation on the amount any donor may give to candidates, committees and political action committees combined.
Only 646 out of millions of donors in the election cycle of 2011-2012 gave the now-defunct legal maximum, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For the current election cycle, the limit is $123,200, broken down as $48,600 to all candidates combined and $74,600 to all party committees and political action committees in total.
The ruling will “mean there will be much greater emphasis by the campaigns and the parties on those donors with the biggest checkbooks who can make those very large contributions,” said Bob Biersack, who works for the CRP and is a 30-year veteran of the Federal Election Commission.
“Whether that’s good or bad depends on your perspective on how this whole system should work, but it absolutely means that the small number of people who can give at those levels” will be asked to give more, he added.
The ruling leaves unchanged a parallel system in which individuals donate unlimited amounts, sometimes undisclosed, to certain outside groups. Biersack said the same small group of 646 donors gave a total of about $93.4 million in the last campaign. Their largesse will still be avidly sought, as Republican presidential hopefuls recently demonstrated by travelling to Las Vegas to meet with casino magnate and conservative donor Sheldon Adelson.
In the realm of limited donations, Cleta Mitchell, an election lawyer for Republicans, said the court’s ruling means that various party committees and candidates no longer will have to vie for money from the same contributors. The law permits a donor to contribute $5,200 for the primary and general election combined to any candidate, and if they did so, could donate only to nine office-seekers before reaching the $48,600 limit to all federal office-seekers.
Similarly, while Republicans and Democrats in Washington each maintain a national party committee, a Senate campaign committee and a House campaign committee, a donor could give the maximum allowable amount to only two of the three without violating the overall limitation the court discarded.
Now, Mitchell said, “the donors get to choose obviously, but the committees don’t have to feel like they’re pinching another party’s donors.”
In all, she described the ruling as “a positive for the parties.”
Fred Malek, a veteran Republican fundraiser, said the ruling seems most likely to help individual candidates “and will tend to widen the number of well-financed and competitive races.”
The court’s ruling also means that donors will be able to give $10,000 a year to as many state party committees as they want, so-called joint committees, in which a lawmaker can now solicit funds simultaneously for their own campaign, their own political action committee, their party and for an unlimited number of other candidates without donors exceeding the old limits.
Biersack cited House Speaker John Boehner’s fundraising efforts as an example, said he would now be able to use a joint fundraising committee for hundreds of Republican House candidates simultaneously, greatly expanding their ability to receive funds.
In theory, this ability could once more allow parties and their leaders to assert more discipline over rank-and-file lawmakers, who have become increasingly beholden to outside groups in recent years.
Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and a campaign finance attorney, said the court’s ruling will be a boon to state parties, which he said have been neglected previously because donors hit the overall spending limit before they could distribute funds lower on the political food chain. “We have lots of optimism that this new decision would enable people who want to support us to do so,” he said.
Under the court’s ruling, a donor could donate the maximum $10,000 a year to each of their party’s 50 state committees, or a total of $1 million over a two-year election campaign — and still donate to candidates as well as national party committees and political action committees.
Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called the ruling a “win for national party committees” and said it will “greatly enhance our ability to raise resources to support our voter contact and field program … in states across the country.” He referred to a new field project to boost turnout in certain states with key Senate races this year.
While there was general agreement about the short-term impact of the ruling, there was a strong divergence of opinion on the wisdom of the court’s conservative majority. The case was the latest in which the justices found that many limits on contributions violate the givers’ constitutional free-speech rights.
Republicans who backed the suit challenging the overall limits cheered the ruling.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who filed a brief in support of the challenge, said the court “has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice.”
He added that court’s ruling makes it clear that it is the “right of the individual, and not the prerogative of Congress, to determine how many candidates and parties to support.”
However, another Republican, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, saw the decision as troubling, saying it “muscles up the role of the wealthy and the very wealthy.”
“That can’t be good overall in the long term for American electoral politics,” said Keating, the president and CEO of the American Bankers Association.
Keating suggested that the ruling — and the possibility that the high court might do away with donation limits altogether — could have a chilling effect on the type of people who enter politics.
“Could we ever get another Abraham Lincoln to run, a person of modest means who simply doesn’t have access to the kind of funding advantages that some in our society do? That’s what’s worrisome,” Keating said.
Democrats said the ruling must be viewed in the context of earlier ones that they said strengthened the power of the wealthy.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former state attorney general, criticized the court’s majority in unusually sharp terms, saying the majority seems interested in “aligning political power in this country with political wealthy.”
“We see the court behaving in a way that would be matched if the five conservative justices made it a strategy to go off and sit in a room by themselves and decide how best to implement the Republican agenda, and then came out and did it,” he said.
Schumer said a Senate committee he chairs would hold hearings on the issue.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Ken Thomas in Washington, Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Steve Peoples in Boston contributed to this report.