Colorado GOP wants to skirt campaign contribution limits


Stacks of $100 bills. Cash money. (Credit: Ieva Geneviciene.)

The decade-old Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as McCain-Feingold, has dramatically curbed the influence of political parties while leading to the rise of powerful outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

Now, the Colorado Republican Party wants to compete with those big outside groups to level the playing field.

In a petition filed with Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R), the party asks permission to create an independent expenditure unit to raise and spend money on political campaigns. The party is asking Gessler to allow them to accept unlimited contributions, just as super PACs and other outside groups are allowed to do.

Independent expenditure units tied to party committees are nothing new. National groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and their counterparts spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on independent expenditures; the committees must create firewalls to ensure that staff working on the independent side do not coordinate with staff working in conjunction with candidates.

But under current practice, independent expenditure units operated by party committees must abide by campaign contribution limits. That means federal party committees cannot accept more than $32,400 per calendar year from an individual. State party committees are bound by their own contribution limits; in Colorado, an individual can contribute up to $3,400 per calendar year to either party.

“The [campaign finance] reformers have used the states as incubators to try and experiment with what kind of reforms could pass,” said William McGinley, a Republican campaign finance attorney at Patton Boggs. “The party committees are waking up and realizing this is the next opportunity for them to try to strengthen their hands.”

“They’re going to Gessler to say, ‘Give us a hand, help us be relevant again,’” McGinley said.

Gessler will rule on the request later this year. The ruling would apply to both the Republican and Democratic Party committees.

Campaign finance reform advocates say allowing unlimited contributions to party-backed committees would circumvent a 2003 Supreme Court decision upholding the federal ban on soft money.

“The Campaign Legal Center’s view is that the State of Colorado should enforce its limits on contributions to political party committees, even with respect to the funds parties use to make independent expenditures,” said Paul Ryan, senior counsel at the campaign finance reform group. “Parties are much different than the so-called ‘independent’ super PAC groups that have won lawsuits allowing them to operate free of contribution limits.”

Regardless of which way Gessler decides, the ruling is likely to be challenged in court.

The Federal Election Commission allows party committees and their independent units to have common leadership and administrative staff. Colorado law allows for independent expenditure units, though they are tied to the same contribution limits as the state party.

Party spending as a share of overall election spending has declined dramatically since McCain-Feingold went into effect a decade ago. The legislation ended the parties’ ability to raise and spend unlimited amounts of so-called soft money, which could be spent on party-building activities like voter registration drives or facilities maintenance.

That has meant parties must raise and spend so-called hard dollars — subject to contribution limits — for everything from building repairs to television advertising. Several years ago, the Republican National Committee was forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair a broken elevator in their Washington headquarters, money that otherwise could have gone toward advertising for candidates.

In the wake of McCain-Feingold, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, outside groups have made the case to donors that they spend higher percentages of each contribution on actual advocacy, rather than overhead.

A left-leaning Colorado watchdog group filed a responding petition with Gessler’s office. But the state GOP’s request is also taking heat from an unlikely source — conservative groups worried the money would be used to promote certain establishment candidates over outsiders.

“This could easily give an unfair advantage to establishment candidates and not liberty grassroots candidates,” Marc Zarlengo, a Colorado tea party activist, told the Denver Post.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | January 8