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Analysis: Big campaign spending filled with opportunities, pitfalls

David Lightman McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON – Big campaign money just got even bigger.

Thanks to Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning laws on certain donor restrictions, legions of American voters, already angry at a distant, dysfunctional political system, might feel even further alienated from the process. Or they’ll have new opportunities to make it better.

In other words, there will be an impact from the ruling that lifted limits on how much donors can give in a single election cycle. Whether you like or hate the fallout depends on where you sit politically.

“This is a terrific decision. It reinforces First Amendment values,” said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former Federal Election Commission member.

“This decision may be more good news for American oligarchs, but it is bad news for voters,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

Rejecting the restriction on donations as a violation of free speech, the 5-4 ruling by the high court struck down a Watergate-era limit that Congress wrote to prevent a single donor from writing a large check to buy influence on Capitol Hill. It was the latest sign that the court’s conservative majority intends to continue dismantling funding limits created over the last four decades.

Under those limits, donors could give up to $5,200 to any individual candidate for Congress per election cycle, and no more than $123,200 to all candidates and political party committees put together.

Acting on an appeal from the Republican National Committee, the high court left the individual candidate limits intact but declared the overall limit unconstitutional.

As a result, individuals will be able to give the individual maximum to every candidate for Congress, either directly or through contributions to a political party. That in effect raises the new maximum that can be given to candidates and party committees during a two-year election cycle to $3.6 million.

Money’s influence on campaigns is often most pronounced in two ways: It allows well-known politicians, usually incumbents, to build up big war chests, thus scaring off many who are intimidated by the sums, and it permits wealthy candidates or those with substantial donor networks to gain a decisive edge over citizens without such advantages.

That’s why, for instance, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is being mentioned these days as a viable 2016 presidential candidate, even though he last ran for office 12 years ago; that, and the political credibility that having a presidential lineage confers.

But there’s evidence that those who pour millions into campaigns don’t succeed.

“What this decision means is a lot of crazy people are going to spend a lot of money and have no impact,” said Peter Kelly, a former Democratic National Committee finance chairman and treasurer. “These are often highly motivated people with extreme positions.”

In 2012, for instance, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson spent an estimated $15 million to boost the unsuccessful candidacy of Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.

And for all the claims that big money matters, control of the House of Representatives has changed parties only three times in the past 20 years, after staying under Democratic rule for the previous 40.

Sometimes deep pockets do bring results. The billionaire Koch brothers are in the midst of a five-year campaign criticizing the Affordable Care Act. Their recent efforts have focused on seven states where Democratic-held Senate seats are up for re-election this year.

Republicans are thought to have a decent chance of winning all seven seats, though whether the Koch campaign will be a major factor is a matter of debate. What might determine the ultimate impact of Wednesday’s decision is how voters come to view the political process: Will they participate less? Will they vote?

Wednesday’s ruling may reinforce the notion that those without fat bank accounts will find their voices fading even further. Or, alternatively, joining with like-minded people to have even more clout.

“If you’re a little guy, you spend your money with others,” von Spakovsky said.

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