Raleigh, N.C. — A U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down certain campaign finance limits will not alter North Carolina but will expand some of the pathways wealthy donors use to influence federal elections here and across the country.
In a 5-4 ruling Wednesday, the court struck down a federal law that limited individual donors to spending $123,200 on all political campaigns in 2013 and 2014. Justices left intact laws that limit how much an individual candidate or party could accept from a single donor.
North Carolina has individual contribution limits for each candidate, but unlike 12 other states and the District of Columbia, it did not impose an aggregate limit similar to the federal law that was struck down. Those state laws are now on uncertain legal footing.
"If we interpret political contributions as a form of expressing your views, then why you have a collective limit on giving is unclear," said John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, based in Raleigh.
Roughly speaking, the ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC was welcomed by conservatives who have argued that limits on campaign spending are limits on free speech. Liberal groups were more likely to decry the ruling.
“Today’s ruling in McCutcheon makes clear that, in our battle against organized greed, working people cannot count on the Supreme Court to deliver justice," said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO.
Campaign watchdogs say the ruling will further widen a gap between the political influence wielded by wealthy donors and ordinary citizens who don't have the wherewithal to make big donations.
"It's another pathway for wealthy donors to put more money into electing people of their choice," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.
Only a very few donors across the nation – 646 in the two-year 2012 election cycle according to the Center for Responsive Politics – run up against the aggregate limits that the court struck down.
Even before Wednesday's decision, donors who wanted to influence elections could give unlimited – and often undisclosed – sums to nonprofit groups to air campaign commercials on behalf of their favored candidates. Those groups, including conservative Americans for Prosperity and liberal Patriot Majority, have been some of the biggest players in North Carolina's U.S. Senate campaign.
The money affected by the McCutcheon decision will show up on campaign finance reports. Federal law says that donors can give each candidate only $2,600 per primary and general election.
However, federal lawmakers have ways to expand what they can raise from any one donor.
Candidates, for example, can establish leadership PACs designed to funnel money to allies. Both U.S. Sens. Richard Bur and Kay Hagan have leadership PACs, as does 13th District Congressman George Holding. Donors are allowed to give up to $5,000 per year to leadership committees on top of what they give directly to a member's campaign.
As well, joint fundraising committees allow lawmakers to link different types of PACs together so they can more efficiently raise money from well-heeled donors. A wealthy donor can write one big check that is then parceled out to various committees allied under the banner of a single joint committee.
The McCutcheon decision will widen the pool of campaign cash that can be raised by political parties, individual lawmaker's political committees, leadership PACs and joint committees.
"No donor is going to give that kind of money without expecting something in return. These decisions are tragically misguided at a time when Americans are demanding government of, by and for the people, not government bought and paid for by special interests," 4th District Congressman David Price said in a statement.