McConnell, Priebus differ on cash limits

Greg Nash

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus are taking different stances on whether the Supreme Court should go further to strike down limits on campaign donations.

McConnell traditionally has been one of the most outspoken critics of campaign finance restrictions, but he has downplayed the prospect of erasing limits on gifts to individual candidates and political parties.

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When asked if contribution limits could be done away with altogether, McConnell last week said, “I think that’s not likely to happen. We’re very comfortable and have been for many years with contribution limits on gifts to parties and to candidates.”

Priebus, who heads a party committee that is a shadow of what it was before the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, has called for scrapping limits altogether.

Priebus played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in pushing a legal challenge to aggregate limits on campaign donations, which the Supreme Court struck down this month in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

After the decision, he said the court should strike down all limits.

“I don’t think we should have caps at all,” Priebus told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

GOP officials disputed that there is daylight between McConnell and Priebus.

Daniel Horowitz, the policy director of the Madison Project, a conservative group that opposes McConnell’s reelection, expressed surprise over the Senate GOP leader’s statement.

“It surprised me that he said that openly because that is the one issue he always takes a very public and vocal stance,” Horowitz wrote in an email. 

Horowitz argued that McConnell has “already made the shift” to relying on help from outside groups such as Crossroads GPS, which is headed by his former chief of staff, Steven Law.

“It seems to me that he is only against limits on free campaign speech when it hurts his campaign apparatus,” Horowitz added. “Now that McCain-Feingold has shifted the balance of power and he has mastered the new dynamic, supporting caps on individual donations actually benefits him and will help tamp down future challenges to some of his lieutenants in primaries.”

Jan Baran, a veteran campaign law attorney, said McConnell simply has a stronger grasp of the issue than Priebus. He agrees with McConnell that the court is unlikely to strike down limits on how much a donor can give to a single candidate or party.

“Sen. McConnell is very familiar with the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence and I don’t think Mr. Priebus is,” he said.

Baran noted that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of limits.

“We’ve had about 40 years of Supreme Court cases that say those types of limits are permitted under the First Amendment,” he said.

Democrats warn the Supreme Court could soon strike down all limits on how much a donor may give.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) claims the court’s conservative justices “wish to dismantle all limits on giving.”

If McConnell were to endorse getting rid of all donations limits, it could play into the Democratic strategy of painting the Senate GOP as too cozy with wealthy conservative donors such as Charles and David Koch.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently suggested Republican senators should “wear Koch industries insignias” like NASCAR drivers who wear patches bearing the names of their sponsors.

Priebus, on the other hand, is more focused on trying to rebuild a party infrastructure that was significantly weakened by the ban on collecting unlimited contributions.

He argues the limits on party fundraising have put Republicans at a disadvantage because the law allows unions to campaign extensively for Democrats.

Republican strategists and campaign finance experts attribute the rise of the Tea Party and the threat conservative primary challengers pose to GOP candidates in large part to fundraising restrictions that weakened the party.

Neil Reiff, the former deputy general counsel of the Democratic National Committee, and Don McGahn, the former chairman of the Federal Election Committee, observed in a recent article for Campaigns and Elections magazine that the McCain-Feingold law has hit state parties especially hard.

They noted that many state parties had received significant transfers from the national parties prior to the law’s passage but now no longer do.

“The two-party system has been a stabilizing force in our democracy for over 200 years,” they wrote. “Without that stabilizing force, however, there has been a significant rise in the number of single-issue candidates, nasty primaries pitting the middle against the hard partisan flank, and a general polarization.”

For the 2013-2014 cycle, individual donors are limited to giving $2,600 to a candidate per election and $32,400 to a national party committee per calendar year, according to the Federal Election Commission.