Though the Supreme Court’s ruling last week on McCutcheon v. FEC explicitly applied to federal elections, it could unleash a torrent of spending at the state level as well, potentially impacting Connecticut’s close gubernatorial contest this November.
The Court’s decision eliminated the cap on the total amount an individual can legally donate to national parties and candidates for federal office in a single election cycle. While the Court maintained a cap of $2,600 for donations to individual candidates, it ruled that donors can contribute that amount to as many candidates as they can afford. The ruling did not address the constitutionality of caps on spending in state elections, forcing Connecticut and 12 other states that limit such spending to scrutinize the decision and determine whether or not to continue enforcing their state laws.
Joshua Foley, staff attorney and spokesman for the State Elections Enforcement Commission, said that the Commission’s lawyers are still parsing the decision to determine the best course of action. He said it is difficult to predict how significantly the ruling will change Connecticut, which caps aggregate spending in state elections at $30,000. But, he said, the general consequences of the ruling are already clear.
“The overall effect is that more money will be allowed into the electoral process at every level,” Foley said. “That could trickle down to have an impact that’s hard to foresee.”
He said that McCutcheon seems to affect the CT state statute that limits donor spending in a similar way to the federal limit that was struck down. Several outcomes are possible: a donor could challenge the state law, the General Assembly could amend the statute or the Commission could simply stop enforcing it. In Massachusetts, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance announced the day of the ruling that it would no longer enforce the Commonwealth’s $12,500 aggregate limit on spending in state races.
Mijin Cha, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a New York-based think tank, said the decision will result in an additional $1 billion in campaign spending by the biggest donors through 2020.
Ron Schurin, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, said the impact of McCutcheon on federal and state elections may be less substantial than many critics claim. Very few donors are able to spend beyond the former cap, and since the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC empowered individuals and corporations to spend millions through PACs, smaller donations directly to candidates have played a lesser role in elections. Furthermore, existing restrictions on campaign spending are inadequately enforced, Schurin added.
“Every time there has been an advance in regulation of campaign finance, within a matter of weeks if not minutes, people find a way to get around it,” Schurin said.
Foley said the Nutmeg State’s aggregate limit was rarely enforced because donors were never accused of violating it.
Cha said Connecticut’s popular public financing system, in place since 2008, will help reduce the impact of the ruling by ensuring that candidates without deep-pocketed backers can afford to run. Gov. Dannel Malloy used public financing in his 2010 race against Tom Foley, who did not use public funds. Foley is the current Republican frontrunner and has not yet announced whether he will use public funds.
Because Connecticut’s public funding system is widely respected, Cha said she thinks even the elimination of aggregate limits at the state level would not push Connecticut politicians to eschew public financing in favor of private donations.
“People in Connecticut don’t want to be beholden to monied interests,” Cha said. “It’s not correct to say that politicians are fundamentally corrupt.”
Connecticut’s public financing system, called The Citizens’ Election Program, will award $6.5 million to gubernatorial candidates in the 2014 election.