, Salem, MA


April 5, 2014

Shribman: Let loose the purse strings


In pre-20th century terms, this means the likely re-emergence of party-aligned power brokers like Mark Hanna, who bankrolled Republican President William McKinley (in office 1897-1901) and also served himself in the Senate (1897-1904). In more modern terms, it also means the sustained and perhaps enhanced power of organized labor over Democratic politicians and of large business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers over Republican politicians.

This decision prompted the predictable hails and horrors from the predictable corners of American civic and political life. But its effects — like the campaign finance laws themselves, which reshaped American politics in unanticipated, often mischievous ways — are impossible to predict.

That said, some changes are almost inevitable. “A relatively small group of donors capable of giving large sums now will be able to give even more,” says Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a Colby College political scientist specializing in campaign finance issues. No one disputes that.

There likely will be a new Niagara of money flowing into this year’s 36 gubernatorial races, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the states, including the four big ones (California, Texas, New York and Florida) and several other politically important ones (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland and Wisconsin).

Money will flood into the 435 House races, too, where Republicans almost certainly will retain and very likely enhance their majority, as well as the 33 Senate races that now loom so important for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency and for the rest of this decade.

One of the campaign-finance caps that remains — the ban on giving more than $5,200 to a single candidate during the two-year election cycle — is almost meaningless on a national scale. Now big donors can direct their contributions to all candidates coast to coast or contribute to the national parties, permitting the parties in turn to distribute the money where it would be most effective. That latter tactic could trump the influence of an individual donor on an individual campaign, as it would permit party strategists in Washington to concentrate money where its impact can be greatest.

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