The deal Donald Trump struck with the Republican National Committee this week that allows wealthy supporters to give nearly $500,000 to finance his campaign and get-out-the-vote activities made it official: The parties are back in the big-money business.
Fourteen years after a landmark campaign-finance overhaul clamped down on the flow of unregulated money to party coffers, both Republicans and Democrats are raising huge contributions again with gusto.
Thanks to a pivotal 2014 Supreme Court decision and an expansion of party fundraising slipped into an appropriations bill later that year, the RNC and its Democratic counterpart have been able to vastly increase their top donor levels by pooling numerous accounts and affiliates together into jumbo joint fundraising committees.
The Trump Victory fund, a new partnership announced Tuesday, will take donations up to $449,400 that will be split between his campaign, the RNC and 11 state parties. A wealthy contributor who gives the maximum to both the victory fund and the RNC’s most-elite donor program can shell out as much as $783,400 this cycle, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Supporters of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton can rack up even higher totals because of her decision to launch a 32-state joint fundraising committee with the Democratic National Committee last fall. Between that fund and the DNC’s top-tier convention package, an individual donor could give more than $1.1 million this cycle to support her campaign and the party.
The result, say advocates for stricter campaign finance rules, is an environment akin to the 1990s, when the parties took in huge amounts of “soft money” that was supposed to be used for general party-building but also seeped into political activities.
“What we’re watching here is theater of the absurd,” said Fred Wertheimer, who leads the watchdog group Democracy 21. “The presidential campaigns, the parties and Washington are operating on a different planet from the rest of the nation when it comes to big money in American politics. This system is in free-fall collapse.”
Boosters take a different view, arguing that the mega-donations will help restore the influence of the parties, who have lost ground to well-funded independent groups.
“It is a partial return to the soft-money days, and in my own view, it doesn’t go far enough,” said Republican campaign finance attorney Robert Kelner. “The end of soft money dramatically disempowered the political parties, and that is one reason that our politics have become so turbulent ever since.”
Parties lost their ability to take in unlimited donations from individuals and corporations after the aggressive solicitation of soft-money donors during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Investigations into charges that illegal foreign contributions were funneled into party committees helped lead to the passage of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which banned parties from accepting unregulated donations.
But the constraints on the parties began to loosen with the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. That did away with an aggregate cap on how much individual donors could give to federal campaigns, parties and PACs in one year — allowing candidates and parties to create huge joint fundraising committees.
Later that year, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders tucked a measure into an appropriations bill that gave national parties the ability to collect additional funds for new convention, legal and building accounts. Each account can accept three times more than a donor can give to a party’s main fund — essentially expanding the contribution limit tenfold.
Money for those accounts is not suppose to finance direct political activities and voter outreach. But that was also the case in the mid-1990s, and the DNC still used millions in soft money to help run “issue ads” promoting Clinton.
Such aggressive interpretation of the rules is likely to occur again, particularly since the FEC, which is tasked with enforcing campaign finance rules, is mired in an ideological standoff, election law experts said.
“I think both political parties will find many creative ways to use the quasi-soft money accounts to support their presidential candidates,” Kelner said. “We are in an environment in which there has been virtually no enforcement of the campaign finance laws, so it would arguably be political malpractice not to make maximum uses of these accounts.”
The parties have already raced to take advantage of the new fundraising avenues. The DNC’s top-tier convention package, dubbed “Rittenhouse Square,” requires a donor to give $467,600 during the cycle, including contributing the maximum $100,200 to the party’s headquarters fund in both 2015 and 2016.
Meanwhile, the Hillary Victory Fund signed up 32 state parties as participants, helping it raise more than $60 million by the end of March. So far, much of the money donated for the state parties has passed through them and onto the DNC.
The Trump Victory fund is seeking even higher donations than Clinton’s fund by tying in all of the RNC’s new accounts. The first $5,400 a contributor gives will go to his campaign, while $10,000 will be allocated to each of the 11 state parties and $334,000 will go the RNC.
“This just shows how out of touch the Supreme Court was in the McCutcheon case,” said Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which seeks stricter regulation of campaign finance. “They said there was no evidence any of this would happen — and no one lost a step making sure it did.”
Shaun McCutcheon, the Alabama businessman whose suit led to the Supreme Court decision, was jubilant about the huge dollars now rushing into the parties.
“We are celebrating money and politics back in the parties, and the fact that they can raise significantly more money for downstream candidates,” he said. “Both sides are doing it, which I think is great. The best outcome is more competition and more free speech.”
For his part, Trump has said he’s going to try to raise more than $1 billion in conjunction with the RNC, which would require the committees to pull in a staggering average of $250 million a month for the next five months.
Veteran party fundraisers are skeptical, noting that many longtime GOP bundlers are reluctant to participate in the effort. But Steven Mnuchin, the hedge fund manager who Trump tapped as his national finance chairman, said donors are eager to participate.
“We have seen tremendous support, both from people who were traditional fundraisers and were with other teams and who want to come aboard, as well as people who were not traditional fundraisers and want to support Mr. Trump,” he said.
Trump’s first official campaign fundraiser is set to take place May 25 in Los Angeles, hosted by investor Thomas Barrack Jr., who did real estate business with him in the 1980s. The real estate mogul has expressed willingness to participate in as many as 50 finance events that the campaign and party are now scrambling to book.
“A lot of people are coming out of the woodwork who want to help,” said Rick Hohlt, a Washington lobbyist and longtime Republican fundraiser, who is making calls to potential high-dollar donors on behalf of the campaign, adding: “I’m hearing from fundraisers and bundlers I’ve worked with in the past and we’re hearing from people who are new to political fundraising. The new ones run the gamut from equity investors to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to CEOs of major companies.”
Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.