The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Winners and losers from the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling

Placeholder while article actions load

The Supreme Court on Tuesday morning struck down a 40-year-old ban on aggregate contributions that a single donor can give to candidates and party committees. In short, the court's ruling means that a single contributor is no longer capped on how many candidates and party committees he/she can give to in a given election cycle. It keeps in place the federal campaign limits that restrict how much a donor can give to any one candidate or to any one party committee.

It's the biggest campaign financing ruling from the court since the Citizens United ruling and, as such, produces a handful of winners and, yes, some losers.  Here they are.


* Joint fundraising committees: These organizations allow a donor to write a single check that is then split up between a handful of candidates/committees. So, if you wrote a $50,000 check, for example, the first $32,400 would go to the national party committee (that's the current federal donation limit for a single year) and the remaining $17,600 would be parceled out in $2,600 increments to candidates. Prior to the McCutcheon ruling, an individual could give only $123,200 in a single election cycle: $48,600 to candidates (which breaks down to 18 "max out" candidate donations) and $74,600 to federal party committees. That limit is now gone. "An individual may now make as many 'max out' contributions to candidates in an election cycle, and to parties and PACs in a calendar year, as he or she wishes," according to a summary of the opinion from the political law wing of Perkins Coie. The joint fundraising committee will almost certainly be the preferred vehicle that candidates and party committees set up to collect -- and disburse -- big checks from wealthy individuals.

* Party committees: The competition among party committees -- Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee vs. the Democratic Congressional Committee vs. the Democratic National Committee, for example -- is over.  Instead of competing to be the recipient of the $32,400 an individual donor could contribute to a national party committee each year, now the committees are each free to collect $32,400 each from a major giver willing to write that sort of check. To the extent they can find donors willing to write those checks -- there were fewer than 700 people in the 2012 cycle who would have been affected by McCutcheon -- that's a financial boon for the party committees.

* Big donors:  Wealthy individuals are now able to spend more of their own money on more candidates and more campaign committees. If you wanted to spread your wealth around to, say, every Republican candidate running for Senate this year, you can now do it.

* State parties:  State parties had been starved by the aggregate limits. Donors, especially major givers, like to give to the politically sexier causes. And that tends to be federal candidates and national party committees. By the time that giving was done, donors were typically at or close to their $74,600 giving limit to all political action and party committees. Now, under McCutcheon, a donor could, theoretically, give the federal limit of $10,000 to every single one of the 50 state parties.


* Campaign finance reformers: While the aggregate limit was part of the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms in 1974, it was adopted as part of the package of changes to the campaign funding system that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) pushed through Congress at the start of the last decade. "I am concerned that today’s ruling may represent the latest step in an effort by a majority of the Court to dismantle entirely the longstanding structure of campaign finance law erected to limit the undue influence of special interests on American politics," McCain said in a statement Tuesday morning.

Opponents of McCain-Feingold cast the McCutcheon decision as the basis for a broader challenge to the idea of federal limits on what an individual can give a single candidate. "I think the opinion provides a road map for next steps to challenge the party limitations," said Ben Ginsberg a Republican campaign finance lawyer at Patton Boggs. "It’s another dagger at what is more and more obviously the failure and mistake that is McCain-Feingold and the [Federal Election Campaign Act]."  The counterargument, via former FEC chairman Trevor Potter, is that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to affirm the base donation limits by focusing on the aggregate limit as essentially a limit on expenditures, not donations. "That leaves all the contribution limits in McCain-Feingold upheld — like the ban on corporate and labor funds to federal party committees, and the individual contribution limit," Potter said.

* Big donors: Yes, you can now give money to more candidates. But, no, you can't write unlimited checks to your favorite candidate. That means that super PACs and 501(c)(4)s remain the most viable way for a donor who wants to spend millions for a specific candidate to do so. And, perhaps most importantly, major donors no longer have a built-in excuse when candidates and party committees come calling. The "I hit my contribution limit" excuse is gone.