Donors freed by McCutcheon decision: Mostly wealthy white men

Elite megadonor class often allied with business interests likely to vault past struck contribution restrictions

With the expansion of the amounts individuals can give to candidates, parties will hand more power to the “super rich,” critics warn.
Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images

Dismayed campaign finance advocates say that the Supreme Court’s controversial McCutcheon vs. FEC decision released Wednesday morning threatens to unleash a new avalanche of money into a political system already flush with contributions from moneyed interests.  

But exactly who will be empowered to write more checks this election season as a result of the McCutcheon decision? Perhaps to no one’s surprise, researchers and advocates say the elite class of donors who are most likely to exceed the stricken limits tends to skew white, male, affiliated with business interests and, of course, ultra-wealthy.

Before the McCutcheon decision, federal law not only put restrictions on how much individual donors could contribute to any single candidate and party committee, but capped their total contributions to all federal candidates and all party committees in a two-year period. For the 2014 election cycle, those limits were set at a total of $48,600 and $74,600 for candidates and party committees, respectively.

The McCutcheon decision brings an end to those restrictions. Now an individual donor could contribute up to $3.5 million if they maxed out their contributions.

According to an analysis by good governance group Public Campaign last October, a small group of 1,219 donors came close to surpassing the aggregate limits in place in the 2012 election cycle, contributing at least $105,300 to candidates, party committees, and PACs.

These superdonors — those who are now freed to open their wallets even more to as many candidates, party committees and political action committees they deem worthy — include conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch, director Steven Spielberg and banking titan Charles Schwab.

Only a quarter of these donors were women, according to the analysis. Almost half of them lived in the richest 1 percent of neighborhoods, as calculated by per capita income. Fewer than 1 in 50 lived in a majority African-American or Hispanic neighborhood, as compared to 1 in 6 of the general population. And 28 percent of them worked for Wall Street or had roots in the financial sector.

 “These elite donors stand apart from the rest of America; they are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and male,” the report read.

similar analysis by the Sunlight Foundation found the “most likely to exceed” mega-donor group — those who early this year were already at or near the limit for the 2014 election cycle — included many of those who had vested interests in Washington.

They include Stephen Bechtel Jr., whose engineering firm Bechtel Corp. has a strong lobbying presence in Capitol Hill on nuclear issues; billionaire Texas oil magnate Paul Foster; former Goldman Sachs managing director Muneer Satter; registered tax lobbyist Ken Kiers; and several hedge fund managers.   

“It skews the entire system to the top, to those who have money, and it puts the decision making further into the hands of those that are already doing quite well,” said David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund. “What they’re generally not interested in is the minimum wage or support for people who have low or little income.”

Analysts predict that after the McCutcheon decision, lawmakers are likely to spend even more of their time and energy attempting to woo these superdonors.

Donnelly said you could expect to see more spectacles like the pilgrimages four potential 2016 GOP presidential contenders made to Las Vegas last week to curry favor with billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who had publicly said he was looking for a candidate to bankroll. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kaisich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker all made sure to affirm their support for Israel, Adelson’s primary cause.

Christie even went as far as to apologize to Adelson in a private meeting after he called areas where Palestinians live “the occupied territories” — a description that the U.N. uses to describe the West Bank and East Jerusalem but that Israel rejects — in front of a conservative Jewish gathering.

Big money at stake can have that effect on how a lawmaker positions himself, the words he chooses and even the votes he takes, advocates argued.

“Who is your member of Congress going to meet with, a constituent or donor, someone’s written a million-dollar-plus check to advance the party’s interests?” said Stephen Spaulding, policy counsel for the liberal-leaning group Common Cause. “That’s human nature — they are going to have a seat at the table that the constituent isn’t going to have.”

And that diminishes the voices of average Americans and their interests, advocates said.

“All they need to do is cut a check when a member of Congress asks them to and they’ll get their phone calls returned,” said Paul Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, an organization that works on campaign finance issues.

Ryan added that he expected to see unprecedented corruption as a result of both the McCutcheon decision and Citizens United, which unlocked the gates to unlimited spending by corporations and individuals through super PACs.

“The Campaign Legal Center would like to see an American democracy that is truly democratic that reflects the vast diversity of our county,” Ryan added. “When you look at who’s contributing to bankroll the system, we are seeing an overwhelmingly white and male and wealthy donor base that doesn’t look the America I live in.”

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