The Republican National Committee (RNC) apparently wants to party like its 1999. It is bringing two new, overlooked lawsuits seeking to turn back the clock on campaign finance reforms in place since 2003.
Having lost the presidential election, the GOP wasted no time in challenging the constitutionality of bans on soft money and coordinated spending that were championed by its presidential nominee and signed into law by President Bush. The RNC filed one lawsuit in DC federal court that attempts to undo soft money restrictions dividing the state and national parties, and a second in federal court in Louisiana to overturn limits on coordinated spending between candidates and the national parties.
The RNC apparently has decided that it cannot compete in a political climate that limits the influence of corporate soft money. The lawsuits suggest that Republicans may seek to blame the election results on fundraising rules that require parties to cultivate many more individual donors.
Both the limits on spending coordination and the wall between the state and national parties were enacted as part of the landmark McCain-Feingold law and upheld in 2003 in McConnell v. FEC, albeit by a Supreme Court led by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The rules assure that the ban on soft money given to the national parties is not easily circumvented, and that limits on contributions by individuals are not rendered meaningless by direct infusions of party funds to candidates. The RNC and its lawyer, James Bopp, are betting that the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the Court will bode well for its back-to-the-future claims.
Regardless of how one might regard the validity of the attacks on well-established campaign finance principles, the optics for the RNC are not great. This election cycle saw record levels of voter turnout and engagement in campaigns, as well as an explosion of small donors who helped lead the Obama campaign to victory. The Obama campaign’s much-vaunted e-mail list reportedly contains more than ten million names, or 16 percent of his national supporters in the popular vote, according to an analysis in The Nation.
While the Campaign Finance Institute‘s analysis found the percentage of small donors in Obama’s fundraising to be unremarkable (because repeated gifts pushed many “repeater” donors over the $200 threshold), the number of new, small donors who played a part in this election cycle remains staggering.
Campaign finance reform opponents are also trying to use Obama’s fundraising success outside the presidential public financing system as a club to discredit the program. But reformers are not at all humiliated as the Wall Street Journal suggested, by the burgeoning small-donor revolution, record turnout and political voluntarism that marked this election cycle.
Indeed, this aspect of Obama’s success is directly traceable to McCain-Feingold. In the primary, the new rules made it possible for an insurgent primary candidate to overcome an establishment candidate and her prodigious soft-money machine. By outlawing soft money, it pushed candidates out to the grassroots for funds. As Brian Wolff, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) told The American Prospect, “[McCain-Feingold] forced us to do what we should have been doing all along, which was including more people in the political process.”