Fundraising Ruling Prompts a Scramble

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

In summer 2003, an Illinois state senator used a new law to collect campaign contributions six times the normal limit for his insurgent U.S. Senate race against a multimillionaire securities trader.

But last week the Supreme Court struck down that law, the "Millionaire's Amendment," which helped launch the national political career of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) by leveling the financial playing field a bit. Writing for a 5 to 4 majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the law amounted to an "unprecedented penalty" on candidates such as Obama's opponent who want to exercise the First Amendment right to spend their own money in a run for office.

House and Senate candidates who had counted on the same aid in taking on wealthy, self-financed opponents are now scrambling for help and advice. Six years after an overhaul of campaign finance law, they find themselves prohibited from accepting the same outsize donations that helped Obama, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and others win their seats.

"If you run against a self-funder, the law's no longer going to help you out. . . . It will be potentially game-changing," said Marc E. Elias, a Democratic lawyer with Perkins Coie who represents dozens of candidates and party committees.

Before the court's ruling, more than 30 wealthy congressional candidates already had signaled the Federal Election Commission that they expected to self-finance much of their campaigns and would trigger provisions that allowed opponents to accept greater-than-normal contributions.

In some states, primary campaigns involving wealthy, self-financed candidates already have been completed under the rules now deemed unconstitutional. Elsewhere, the landscape of campaigns still underway has suddenly shifted.

In the first round of this summer's primary for Alabama's 2nd Congressional District, state Rep. Jay Love (R) donated $500,000 to his campaign. By waiting until May 20 to cross a self-financing threshold, he left his opponents less than two weeks to collect larger-than-normal donations.

Now, because of the court's ruling, Love is free to spend unlimited amounts of his own money against state Sen. Harri Anne Smith in the July 15 GOP runoff. Smith's donors, meanwhile, must abide by campaign finance limits.

Reports filed Thursday show that, in the last five weeks, Love has given his campaign an additional $150,000. Frustrated, Smith gave $100,000 to her campaign on June 26, the day of the court's ruling.

"It is a very difficult situation. It is a challenge. We are doing what we have to do," said Smith's senior campaign adviser, state Sen. Scott Beason (R-Ala.). "He can meet voters while we are trying to meet voters and raise money."

Love's campaign declined to comment on the financial strategy.

Critics of the Millionaire's Amendment rejoiced at its elimination, saying the provision was written into a sweeping 2002 campaign finance law by a bipartisan group of senators stunned at the huge sums of personal money used to win elections.

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