How The Supreme Court's McCutcheon Decision Could Balloon Spending In State Elections

The Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which obliterated a staple of campaign finance limits, opened the floodgates for yet more money to be spent in federal campaigns.  Yet the effects of the McCutcheon decision are not limited to federal elections. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have aggregate limits on the books that will soon be toppled, if they have not already been nullified, in the wake of McCutcheon, leading to ballooning campaign spending in those states.

The McCutcheon ruling struck down limits on the total amount of money the super-wealthy can give directly to candidates, parties and party committees for federal campaigns.  These "aggregate limits" formerly stood at roughly $123,000 per donor per federal election cycle. Now, in the post-McCutcheon landscape, government watchdogs are forecasting that big donors will be able to directly give between $3.6 and $5.9 million per election cycle to party committees and candidates through joint fundraising committees (committees set up by candidates and parties so that they can coordinate their fundraising efforts), becoming what have been recently dubbed "super" joint fundraising committees.

A similar spending explosion is likely to happen in the eleven states whose aggregate limits will soon be challenged in the courts, removed by legislative bodies, or nullified through state administrative actions (given the McCutcheon ruling, all of the state-level aggregate limits will eventually fall).  This increase in "big money" spending is particularly lamentable for states like Connecticut and Maine that pride themselves on their strong campaign finance laws and have created clean-election systems that not only serve to increase the integrity of their own elections, but also serve as paragons of reform for other states to emulate.

The following analysis forecasts how removing aggregate caps will affect the eight states of the eleven that have aggregate limits on direct donations to candidates. These estimates cover only contributions to candidate committees; adding allowed contributions to PACs and political parties would expand the numbers even further. We have also left out contributions to local races, which could further inflate the influence of wealthy donors.

In these eight states, aggregate limits capped the amount that a single donor was allowed to give to all candidate campaigns combined during a year or election cycle. Without those limits in place, super-wealthy donors will be able to contribute the maximum amount possible to each candidate for legislative and statewide office, significantly expanding the influence of those big donors, while simultaneously decreasing the influence and voice of everyday constituents. The numbers speak for themselves:

  • In Connecticut, the limit currently stands at $30,000 per election cycle. We estimate that big donors will now be able to contribute $164,500 per cycle, nearly six times the previous limit.

 

  • In Maine, the current limit is $25,000 per calendar year, or $50,000 every two years. We estimate that big donors will now be able to contribute $142,500 per election cycle, nearly triple the previous limit.
  • In Maryland, the current limit is $10,000 per four-year election cycle. We estimate big donors will now be able to contribute $768,000 per four-year election cycle. This is a greater than 76-fold increase.

 

  • In Massachusetts, the current limit is $12,500 per year. We estimate big donors will now be able to contribute $103,000 per year, more than an eight-fold increase.

 

  • In New York, the current limit is $300,000 per two years. We estimate big donors will now be able to contribute $2,531,600 per election cycle, more than eight times the previous limit.

 

  • In Rhode Island, the current limit is $10,000 per year. We estimate big donors will now be able to contribute $118,000 per year, a nearly 12-fold increase.

 

  • In Wisconsin, the current limit is $10,000 per year. We estimate big donors will now be able to contribute $126,500 per election cycle, a greater than 12-fold increase.***

 

  • In Wyoming, the current limit is $25,000 every two years. We estimate big donors will now be able to contribute $162,000 per election cycle, more than six times the previous limit.

Our hypothetical donor only contributes to one candidate per race (though they could contribute to as many races as they'd like). If the donor wished to hedge their bets, these numbers could go even higher.

As previously noted, these numbers do not include increases in contributions to party committees or PACs. This is especially important because, without aggregate limits, unscrupulous donors could unlawfully yet effectively use PACs to undermine base limits on contributions to individual campaigns. Unless a state's election administration agency is fully funded and capable of enforcing "anti-circumvention" rules, donors could skirt base limits by earmarking PAC contributions to go to particular candidates.  Despite what Justice Roberts may claim, such earmarking is not purely hypothetical; there exists a long history of this problem in our past, and current loopholes and dysfunction at the Federal Elections Commission (not to mention the challenges facing under-resourced state election agencies) keep such circumvention on the forefront of reformer's minds.

The effects of the McCutcheon decision will be felt in federal elections in every state. Yet for states with aggregate contribution limits for state races, McCutcheon will have the added effect of eroding citizens’ efforts to protect against moneyed power in their state elections as well. 



Footnote: For the purposes of this analysis, we assumed an election year in which both executive and legislative offices were up for election. For all statewide offices, we multiplied the base limits by the number of seats those limits applied to. Below is a list of the offices we included for each state and their associated limits.

Connecticut

  • $3,500 to general election campaign of governor
  • $3,500 to primary campaign of governor
  • $2,000 each to election campaigns of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, state comptroller and attorney general
  • $1,000 each to general election campaigns of 36 state senate candidates
  • $250 each to general election campaigns of 151 state representative candidates
  • $250 each to primary campaigns of 151 state representative candidates

Maine

  • $1,500 to general election campaign of governor
  • $1,500 to primary campaign of governor
  • $375 each to general election campaigns of 186 state legislator candidates
  • $375 each to primary campaigns of 186 state legislator candidates

Maryland

  • $4,000 per four-year election cycle to campaigns of governor, lt. governor, comptroller and attorney general
  • $4,000 per four-year election cycle to 47 state senate campaigns
  • $4,000 per four-year election cycle to 141 state delegate campaigns

Massachusetts

  • $500 per year to candidate campaign committees of governor, lt. governor, attorney general, treasurer/receiver general, auditor and secretary of the commonwealth
  • $500 per year to 200 candidate campaign committees of the state legislature

New York

  • $41,100 each to general election campaigns of governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general
  • $19,700 to primary campaigns of governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general (assuming all are Democrats; the contribution base limit is determined by the number of party voters registered in New York)
  • $10,300 each to general election campaigns of 63 state senate candidates
  • $6,500 each to primary campaigns of 63 state senate candidates
  • $4,100 each to general election campaigns of 150 state assembly candidates
  • $4,100 each to primary campaigns of 150 state assembly candidates

Rhode Island

  • $1,000 per calendar year to campaign committees for governor, lt. governor, attorney general, secretary of state and general treasurer
  • $1,000 per calendar year to 75 state representative committees
  • $1,000 per calendar year to 38 state senate committees

Wisconsin

  • $10,000 per election cycle each to campaigns of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction
  • $1,000 each to 17 state senate candidates’ campaigns (of 32 total, staggered elections)
  • $500 each to 99 state assembly candidates’ campaigns
  • *** As stated above, our estimate does not include contributions to PACs and party committees or contributions for local races.  An analysis by "Wisconsin Democracy Campaign" that included those figures concluded that had the aggregate limit not been in place, big donors could have funneled over $6.1 million into Wisconsin’s elections in the last election cycle.

Wyoming

  • $1,000 per primary election campaigns of governor, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer and state superintendent of public instruction
  • $1,000 per general election campaigns of governor, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer and state superintendent of public instruction
  • $1,000 per primary election campaign of 15 state senators (of 30 total, staggered elections)
  • $1,000 per general election campaign of 15 state senators (of 30 total, staggered elections)
  • $1,000 per primary election campaign of 60 state representatives
  • $1,000 per primary election campaign of 60 state representatives
Share this page: Facebook Twitter Digg SU Digg Delicious