The national political parties are urging wealthy backers to give them 10 times more money than was allowed in the last presidential election, taking advantage of looser restrictions to pursue million-dollar donors with zeal.
Under the new plans, which have not been disclosed publicly, the top donation tier for the Republican National Committee has soared to $1.34 million per couple this election cycle. Democratic contributors, meanwhile, are being hit up for even more — about $1.6 million per couple — to support the party’s convention and a separate joint fundraising effort between the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign.
In return, elite donors are being promised perks such as exclusive retreats with top party leaders, VIP treatment at the nominating conventions and special dinners organized by contribution rank at this month’s RNC finance committee gala.
The new donor packages mark the latest major erosion of campaign finance limits and are reminiscent of the 1990s, when the parties were flush with huge “soft money” contributions from rich backers and corporations. The new push also further elevates the uber-wealthy at a time when independent big-money groups known as super PACs are dominating the 2016 presidential race.
“This makes the parties more indebted to a handful of very large donors giving beyond the means — or even the imagination — of most Americans,” said Trevor Potter, a GOP election-law lawyer who favors stricter campaign finance rules.
Officials have been quietly briefing top donors on the details at gatherings such as the DNC’s summer meeting in Minneapolis and this weekend’s GOP leadership conference on Mackinac Island in Michigan.
Veteran campaign bundlers are astonished at the rapid inflation. Just four years ago, the most a donor could give a national political party was $30,800.
“I think it’s terrible,” said New York venture capitalist Alan Patricof, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and major Clinton backer. “You’re going to have a very, very limited number of people who are going to be able to do that figure.”
For Clinton, in particular, participating in the new fundraising regime may complicate her call for an overhaul of the campaign finance system — one she renewed Saturday at the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention in Manchester.
Last week, her campaign filed paperwork vastly expanding its joint fundraising committee with the DNC to include 33 state parties — making her the only 2016 candidate on either side so far to set up such a vehicle.
But many donors in both parties are relieved that the parties are seeking jumbo-sized contributions again, hopeful that they will siphon some of the funds ballooning the coffers of super PACs.
“I prefer to give to the party, and I think it’s a good option for those who don’t believe in super PACs,” said Robert Wolf, a major Wall Street fundraiser for Democrats.
Allies now hope the parties can regain their primacy by stockpiling more cash under the control of their eventual presidential nominees — resources that can go directly into voter outreach and field organizing.
“This will help stop the uncontrollable flow of non-transparent money, and it will help rebuild the parties,” said Richard Hohlt, a longtime GOP fundraiser and Washington lobbyist.
The dramatic pricing surge has been driven by a combination of two significant legal changes: the 2014 Supreme Court McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision that did away with a cap on how much a political donor could give in an election cycle, and an expansion of party fundraising tucked into an appropriations bill last December.
Together, they have eroded fundraising constraints set by the McCain-Feingold Act, a landmark 2002 campaign finance overhaul aimed at ending the parties’ soft money excesses.
Many of the law’s provisions remain in place, such as the ban on corporate money. But the parties are “fully exploiting” their new advantages, said Robert Kelner, an election-law lawyer who represented the national committees in their challenge to the 2002 law.
Whether power will now tilt away from super PACs remains an open question. Some fundraisers believe donors will prefer to write major checks to the national parties, which can offer them better access to candidates and convention events.
But officials with Priorities USA Action, the main super PAC backing Clinton, said they do not see the party fundraising as a threat. The group has received $25 million in commitments since July 1, as Politico first reported, and is pursuing donors who can give $1 million and more.
“I don’t expect it to have an impact on Priorities’ efforts, and it hasn’t changed the positive response we are getting from folks,” said Guy Cecil, the group’s senior strategist.
Only a rarefied group can play at the parties’ new top levels.
The RNC is pitching its Presidential Trust program, chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as a way for “the most elite RNC investors” to help build infrastructure for the general election, according to a description obtained by The Washington Post. Couples who give $1.34 million this cycle will get to “influence messaging and strategy” through exclusive GOP leadership dinners and quarterly retreats, among other events.
An invitation to the upcoming RNC finance committee fall retreat and gala at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel notes that donors will be assigned to separate “club dinners” at local restaurants depending on their level of giving.
The RNC, which set up the new fundraising levels at the beginning of the year, is already reaping the benefits. The party has pulled in more than $71 million through the end of August and is on track to raise a record amount in the 2016 cycle, officials said.
The DNC has been slower to take advantage of the new fundraising landscape, raising $42.4 million so far this year.
Now it is racing to catch up. Last month, the Democratic Party rolled out three high-level fundraising packages to bring in money before next summer’s presidential convention in Philadelphia. The premier Rittenhouse Square level — named after one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods — requires a supporter to raise $1.25 million or give $467,700 in exchange for VIP credentials, a premier hotel room and tickets to an array of private parties.
Both the RNC and DNC are taking advantage of a measure slipped into a December spending bill that vastly expanded how much national parties can raise by allowing them to collect high-level donations for separate accounts to finance their presidential conventions, building renovations and legal proceedings.
That means that along with $33,400 that a donor can give this year to a party, he or she can give $300,600 more to the additional accounts — a tenfold increase. And a single contributor can give the same amounts again next year, meaning a couple could give a total of $1.34 million during the 2016 election.
The provision was crafted behind the scenes by leaders of both parties with the help of leading campaign finance attorneys, including Marc Elias, now serving as general counsel of Clinton’s campaign. Elias did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition, Clinton’s campaign is now asking donors to give up to $366,100 this year to the Hillary Victory Fund. Her campaign gets $2,700 of that for the primary, while the rest goes to the DNC and 33 state party committees, which can use the funds immediately.
Although past candidates — including President Obama — set up such joint fundraising accounts, they faced a cap on how many committees could be involved. There’s no such limit now thanks to the McCutcheon decision, which did away with the annual contribution limit to candidates and parties.
Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin emphasized that all the donations to the victory fund must be publicly disclosed, unlike the money raised by nonprofit groups that have emerged as political players.
“Our campaign has made it a priority to fight for every vote in every state and to build the party as we do it,” he said. “Money raised into the HVF will provide resources to build the party nationally and in as many states as possible to ensure Democrats have the resources to support the Democratic nominee.”
Advocates for reducing the influence of big donors on politics are dismayed.
“This is a return to the old system of using the parties as vehicles to launder the buying and selling of government influence and decisions,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the group Democracy 21.
For Shaun McCutcheon — the conservative Alabama businessman who filed the suit that knocked down the aggregate contribution limit — the new fundraising is exactly the outcome he was seeking.
“I am very excited about this,” he said, arguing that the funds will strengthen the parties. “This is a good result for the people.”
Anne Gearan in Washington and John Wagner in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.