Supreme Court Gives McConnell Assist in War on Outside Groups

The Court didn't rule as broadly on contribution limits as McConnell wanted, but McCutcheon could help political parties compete against super PACs.

The Supreme Court ruled today that wealthy donors can contribute to as many political candidates, committees, and parties as they desire, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, long an opponent of campaign finance restrictions and a supporter of the Court's Citizens United decision, is celebrating.

The Court did not rule as broadly as McConnell had hoped in the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case, which was decided Wednesday, but its decision could help him in his battle against the shadowy outside groups that oppose his reelection and that of several of his colleagues.

The Court ruled Wednesday in a 5-4 decision that the overall limits on how much an individual can contribute to political candidates and committees in a given election cycle ($48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political committees) violate the First Amendment.

McConnell filed an amicus brief in the case last year urging the Court to take an even broader view and eliminate campaign finance contribution limits altogether. The Court even granted his attorney the opportunity to speak during oral arguments, which took place in October. McConnell and his lawyer argued in the brief that laws limiting campaign contributions "restrict the rights of speech and association of both the contributor and the recipient of the contribution."

As expected, the Court took a much narrower view than McConnell had hoped.

Importantly for McConnell, however, the decision could put at least a little more power back into the hands of official party organizations and candidates. McConnell has made it his goal this cycle to cripple meddling outside groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, groups that have frustrated parties and candidates for, often willingly, going off-message. The McCutcheon decision would allow wealthy individuals, who might otherwise give big to super PACs after hitting the overall contribution limit for, say, the 2014 cycle, to donate those funds to those who are actually running campaigns on the ground. Political parties and candidates, advocates argue, know best. Tellingly, appellant Shaun McCutcheon was joined in the case by the Republican National Committee.

Democratic party groups also noted that the decision would be helpful, although the party typically favors contribution limits. "It is a win for national party committees, and national party committees that raise significantly more than their counterparts (we've outraised the NRSC by $20m to date) stand to do better. In addition, this will greatly enhance our ability to raise resources to support our voter contact and field program - the Bannock Street Project "“ in states across the country," Democratic Senatorial campaign committee spokesman Matt Canter said.

McConnell praised the decision on Wednesday. "The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice. In Shaun McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Court did not strike down individual contribution limits to candidates, political action committees, or parties. But the Court did recognize that it is the right of the individual, and not the prerogative of Congress, to determine how many candidates and parties to support," he said in a statement.

"Let me be clear for all those who would criticize the decision: It does not permit one more dime to be given to an individual candidate or a party — it just respects the constitutional rights of individuals to decide how many to support," McConnell added.

But campaign finance reform advocates worry that in the long run, the McCutcheon decision will have essentially the same effect as opening up contribution limits entirely. While it is true that today's decision in McCutcheon does not give contributors the right to donate more to an individual candidate or committee, it does allow individual donors to give money to as many committees and parties supporting a single candidate as they desire.

As University of California (Irvine) law professor Richard L. Hansen noted in Slate last year, individuals can now make massive contributions to joint fundraising committees benefiting a single candidate, with, say, McConnell receiving the maximum $5,200 donation directly, while the remainder is farmed out to local and national parties and other committees running advertising on his behalf.