With the Supreme Court weighing a challenge to the federal ceiling on campaign contributions by individual donors in an election cycle, a number of big donors from both parties are poised to bust through the old limits if the high court rules their way, according to a new report.
The Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) this week published a list of the top 20 political donors who are already bumping up against the aggregate spending limits and are expected to donate much more should those limits be struck down by the Supreme Court in the ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC.
Some of the top names include hedge fund managers, real estate and oil tycoons, CEOs, a prominent engineer-investor and a public television program host. With more than 10 months left until Election Day, each of the 20 donors have already contributed $100,000 or more in the current campaign cycle, according to the report.
“Clearly there are always donors every cycle who max out in terms of hitting the aggregate limit,” said Viveca Novak, editorial director at CRP. “The concern is that if the Supreme Court strikes down the aggregate limit then these people could give an unlimited amount.”
But some campaign finance experts think it’s too soon to predict how big donors will react to the Supreme Court’s decision in the case, brought by an Alabama businessman and the Republican National Committee and heard by the high court on the second day of its new term in October. Under current rules, donors can give millions of dollars to “super PACs” and other groups that pay for “independent” election ads, but face a hard limit of $48,600 in total to all members of Congress and $74,600 to various party committees.
The plaintiffs, in line with other cases successfully challenging campaign finance laws, argued those limits infringe on their First Amendment right to free speech. The Obama administration argued in favor of keeping the current restrictions.
Former FEC Chairman Michael Toner said he is skeptical of the anticipated flood of new money if the agency’s rules are struck down.
“It’s always hard to predict what these donors are going to do, there are a lot of variables that we can’t know,” he said. “We’ve lived with these variables for so long, who’s to say how the donors will react after the verdict?”
Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, said the most troubling outcome from an end to the current limit would be the increased popularity of joint fundraising committees where big national party organizations can come together and ask donors for one large check to be distributed among various party organizations.
“The people running joint fundraising committees will have enormous amounts of power, and we will be creating a new middleman in politics,” Mr. Allison said.
Mr. Toner agreed that the influence on national party fundraising was a major impact of the court’s decision and could benefit donors who consistently give large amounts to each party committee. However, he was skeptical of how many donors were lined up to contribute.
“How big of a pool is that going to be?” Mr. Toner asked. “How many donors are out there that are willing to cut these huge checks for each of the committees every year?”
According to the Sunlight Foundation and CRP’s list 13 Republican donors, four Democratic supporters and three donors contributing to both parties would almost certainly do just that.
Among those on the list: Charles Schwab, founder of the famous San Francisco-based brokerage firm who has given primarily to Republicans; Stephen Bechtel, co-owner of the giant Bechtel Corp. construction firm and a major Republican contributor; George Krupp, a Boston-based real estate investor and Democratic supporter; and Ellen Susman, star of the PBS show “Balancing Your Life with Ellen Susman” who was President Obama’s top “bundler” in Houston in 2012.
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