An Alabama businessman and major Republican donor is asking the Supreme Court to throw out certain limits on donations to federal candidates.
Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover is challenging the $46,200 limit on total contributions to candidates over a two-year election cycle as a violation of the First Amendment. His case is one of several moving through the courts designed to chip away at caps on political contributions.
McCutcheon doesn’t object to the $2,500 limit on donations to a single candidate per election. Instead, he says he can’t currently give to as many candidates as he wants to in his effort to elect Republicans and to unseat other Republicans he doesn’t believe are conservative enough.
“We need to win a lot of races, because one or two is not going to make a difference,” McCutcheon said in a recent interview.
Joining his argument is the Republican National Committee, which also wants to remove the $70,800 two-year limit on non-candidate contributions, such as those to party committees.
The limits mean someone such as McCutcheon can’t give more than $117,000 to candidates and parties during any two-year federal election cycle.
McCutcheon originally had asked the Federal Election Commission if he could give $51,900 to 28 congressional candidates in the 2011-12 cycle. In his statement to the FEC this spring, McCutcheon said he also intended to donate more than $60,000 to multiple federal candidates in the 2013-14 cycle.
“Mr. McCutcheon has a right to speak and to associate with every candidate of his choosing,” his lawyers wrote in their request to the FEC.
The FEC warned McCutcheon that doing so would violate federal law, so he went to court. A three-judge panel in September found no reason to defy a 1976 Supreme Court opinion that upheld the aggregate contribution limits, even though the limits have been modified since then.
Without the aggregate limits, the judges said, an individual could donate $3.5 million to a party’s federal candidates and its affiliated committees in a two-year election cycle. Courts have ruled that the aggregate limits help prevent corruption and evasion of individual contribution limits.
The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan public interest group that has defended the contribution limits, disagrees with the arguments by McCutcheon and the RNC.
“Plaintiffs’ claim that this type of money would not buy influence and create at the very least the appearance of corruption does not pass the laugh test,” said Tara Malloy, the center’s senior counsel.
McCutcheon, who owns Coalmont Electrical Development in Tuscaloosa County and several other businesses, is one of the most politically active deep pockets in the state. According to a tally by the Center for Responsive Politics, McCutcheon gave about $384,000 to federal candidates, committees and parties in the 2011-12 cycle.
Most of that went to a super PAC he runs, the Conservative Action Fund. Donations to the super PAC are not limited by law. McCutcheon said he started the committee partly because it allowed him to write bigger checks to try to influence elections.
“We need to make some improvements in who we elect across the country, and we can’t really do that with the current set of rules they have in place,” McCutcheon said. “The limits make it extremely difficult to do anything about incumbents, and it doesn’t matter which party you’re talking about.”
The Conservative Action Fund advertises itself as committed to electing conservative Republicans in GOP-held districts and defeating liberal Democrats in Democratic-held districts. The PAC made about $160,000 in independent expenditures during the last election, including almost $27,000 in advertising and mailings aimed at defeating McCutcheon’s hometown congressman, Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills.
The PAC also spent about $8,300 to support one of Bachus’ Republican challengers, state Sen. Scott Beason. Bachus survived without a runoff and easily won re-election.
One of the lawyers in McCutcheon’s case is Jim Bopp, the original legal adviser in the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case — Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission — that allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on ads supporting or opposing individual political candidates. A key question is whether the Citizens United case opens the door to a challenge to contribution limits, as McCutcheon is asking.
McCutcheon’s appeal to the Supreme Court was filed Nov. 1. The government has until Jan. 2 to respond.