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.
Though 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 still will be avidly sought, as Republican presidential hopefuls recently demonstrated by traveling 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.