McCutcheon v. FEC Could Endanger State Limits On Money In Politics

WASHINGTON -- A Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that overturned any or all of the federal aggregate campaign contribution limits on constitutional grounds will likely trickle down to the eight states that currently cap overall giving, warns a group that studies money in state-level elections.

A Wisconsin donor has already brought a court challenge, Young v. Vocke, arguing that the state's aggregate cap is so low that it violates the free speech rights of donors. The case could serve as a vehicle to extend an anti-limits McCutcheon decision to the states.

Nine states -- Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Wyoming -- had aggregate limits in place for the last two election cycles, according to a new report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Arizona has since removed its aggregate limits for the 2014 election cycle in what lawmakers said was an effort to help candidates compete with the unlimited money spent by independent groups.

Supporters of the aggregate limits argue that their elimination at the state level, just as at the federal level, will increase the power of a small group of wealthy donors to bend government to their will.

"If state aggregate limits are overturned, the door will open for that tiny fraction of donors to give more -- possibly much more," Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said in a statement. "Their contributions could make up an increasingly large proportion of the funds raised by state-level candidates. This could, in effect, discourage small donors."

The number of donors who actually hit the nine states' aggregate caps has been very small, according to the report. In the 2012 election, just nine individuals gave the maximum amount allowed in just two states, Arizona and Rhode Island. In the 2010 election, 159 donors gave the maximum amount allowed in four states.

The vast majority -- 81 percent -- of the 2010 donors reaching state aggregate limits did so in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin law allows a donor to give no more than $10,000 in total in a single year. Since the base contribution limit to a statewide candidate is also set at $10,000, one max-out contribution to a gubernatorial candidate causes a donor to hit the aggregate limit, too. In 2010, Republican Scott Walker faced off against Democrat Tom Barrett for the Wisconsin governorship.

Besides the one donor's legal challenge, Wisconsin state legislators are now working to double the aggregate limit.

On the federal level, the McCutcheon case challenges the aggregate limits on giving to candidates, political parties and political action committees. The current limits are $46,800 to candidates, $74,600 to parties and PACs, and $123,200 overall. In oral arguments on Oct. 8, the Supreme Court appeared ready to strike down the aggregate limit on giving to candidates, but Chief Justice John Roberts appeared wary of ending the party-and-PAC limits due to concerns about the effect on the base contribution limits and the ban on soliciting excessively large checks.

See States' Aggregate Limits:

Supreme Court Justices