McCutcheon v. FEC – 2014 Electoral Impacts

On Wednesday, in a 5-4 decision likely to be one of the more controversial of the Roberts Court, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on the total amount of money a single donor may contribute to candidates and to political committees. The ruling in this case, McCutcheon vs. FEC, effectively removed a certain type of donation limit, known as an aggregate, that dictated how much one person could legally donate during a single, two-year election cycle known as a biennium.

Prior to the ruling, one person was allowed to give a maximum of $48,600 directly to all candidates and $74,600 to political parties and political action committees, setting the two-year total at $123,000. This effectively limited a single donor to making 18 maximum level candidate donations of $2,600 per year. This ruling now allows a donor to give $2,600 to as many candidates as they want. In a mid-term year where all 435 members of the House are up for re-election, a single donor could hypothetically donate $2,600 to every candidate of a party for a total of $1,131,000 – far greater than the previous $48,000 limit. The court threw out a similar aggregate limit for donations to political parties and pacs. A single donor could now give $74,600 biannually to a party in every state, where before they could not exceed this limit.

It’s important to note that this ruling does not apply to donations to the so-called ‘super-pacs’ born out of 2010’s Citizens United decision, to which a person may give unlimited donations and are not directly associated with political candidates or parties. Individuals remain free to donate as much money as they wish to any number of these institutions.

While a huge step forward for those who view campaign finance laws as a violation of free speech, the ruling still falls short of a total dismantling of existing law, a scenario where donors would be allowed to give directly to candidates, parties and pacs in an unlimited amount, the ‘holy grail’ of campaign finance reform. This hypothetical situation does now not seem so far-fetched to many opponents of the court’s ruling. Many even see this as inevitable given the courts aggressive stance against campaign finance laws.

HB hbGoing forward towards the 2014 midterm elections the results of this ruling will begin to demystify themselves to the average voter, similar to the formidable rise of super PAC’s during the 2012 election cycle following the still-controversial Citizens United v. FEC decision that paved the way for this week’s landmark ruling. On a national level, this ruling will give large-scale donors the ability to impact state level elections in an unprecedented scale and kicks the door open to out of state money in state elections.

In response, blue state legislators will likely move quickly to amend state law to limit what they view as the fallout from this ruling, and many angry and condemning resolutions will be filed. The Red state reaction will likely be more measured, as many conservatives also publically bemoan the corrupting influence of money on politics. However given the instrumental role that the Republican National Convention and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, played in this case, opposition will be noticeably less vocal, specifically in leadership circles. The right will have to balance this alongside the negative perception of having out of state money influence local elections.