Larry O’Brien had a formal response drawn up for when the fundraisers came calling.
First, it was a fax, then it was an email, but it always said the same thing: No. See, O’Brien is a major donor that plays in the higher echelons of Democratic politics — major enough to donate tens of thousands of dollars to candidates each campaign season. Major enough that he couldn’t give one cent more under the law.
“We used to have a standard fax, which we turned into an email, that would go out in response to solicitations that said something like Mr. O’Brien has hit his maximum or something like that,” says O’Brien, founder of the OB-C Group, a high-profile lobby firm. “The cap did have a real world consequence. Once you hit it, you hit it.”
O’Brien was referring to the limit on a donor’s overall campaign contributions, which stood at $123,200 per election cycle. The Supreme Court, however, obliterated the aggregate cap last April on First Amendment grounds with its McCutcheon v. FEC ruling.
And with that, K Street’s familiar refrain to candidates’ pleas for campaign cash—“I’ve maxed out”—was no longer operative. Campaigns, meanwhile, interpreted McCutcheon as a hall pass for harassing K Street donors.
In this free-fire fundraising environment, O’Brien is now liberated to give more and bother his relatives less.
“I invariably hit the limit every cycle and if I felt the justification to go beyond that, I often sought the help of other family members for making donations on their own,” O’Brien says. “In a sense, I used to see us over the limit anyway.”
Limits on what individuals can give still remain, which are $2,600 for candidates per election and $32,400 for party committees for this cycle. But now lobbyists and other donors can give to as many candidates and groups as they want with no aggregate cap in place.
The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) has found this campaign season that O’Brien is a member of an elite corps of lobbyist donors. Roughly 20 K Streeters have exceeded the now vanquished cap with their political donations for the 2014 elections.
The Democratic lobbyist has contributed more than $152,000 to his party’s candidates and committees, nearly $29,000 more than the old limit, according to the campaign finance watchdog.
Yet lobbyists only make up a thin slice of this new class of super donor. CRP has found nearly 500 contributors overall who have blown past the old limit, donating $83.7 million to candidates and political committees—about $22.5 million over what they could give under the previous cap.
Sarah Bryner, CRP’s research director, says the McCutcheon ruling could provide a strategic advantage to K Street, considering campaign contributions can equal face time with that crucial lawmaker on Capitol Hill.
“It’s their job to be able to get access to members of Congress. It’s a matter of being practical so since this is now legal and if they have the funds, there are strategic reasons for them as lobbyists to exceed what was the cap,” Bryner says.
These figures could go even higher, considering the FEC has been overwhelmed with thousands of pages from Senate campaign reports. Many Senate candidates choose to file their reports on paper—rather than electronically as those running for the House must do—meaning weeks will go by before the FEC can process all that data.
K Street may not be the biggest source for campaign cash but lobbyists are reliable donors to their party’s candidates. Further, they often see contributing to campaigns as part and parcel of their business with Congress.
“If you’re not willing [to write checks] or raise money, you don’t get to interact with these people. Those opportunities have been eliminated and have been converted into fundraising venues,” O’Brien says.
Nevertheless, many liked to fend off fundraisers by saying they have given the maximum amount before McCutcheon, though few did.
“Despite all the talk about the cap, very few hit it,” says Michael Fraioli, a Democratic fundraiser and president of Fraioli & Associates. “The lobbyists who hit the cap used to say they were maxed. Well, they are never maxed now.”
Still, lobbyists feel little obligation to give more to campaigns.
“I can say no. It goes like this—‘No,’” says Ken Kies, managing director of the Federal Policy Group.
One of the more prominent Republican tax lobbyists, Kies has given almost $186,000 in political contributions this cycle, according to CRP. He says campaigns haven’t tried to use the McCutcheon ruling to extract more funds from him.
“I haven’t heard fundraisers making that case,” Kies says. “I have heard very little mention of it.”
One GOP lobbyist who often met the old cap in campaign giving said having no limits means that he may contribute to more candidates.
“If I’m on the phone with a member of Congress that I like and I have worked with, that’s something different. Maybe I wouldn’t have given before but I’m inclined to say yes now. So in those few instances, McCutcheon has impacted my giving,” says the lobbyist. Fraioli says donors are now writing bigger checks, or the same check but to more candidates.
“That means people who used to write a grand are now writing five. Those who used to write five are now writing ten,” he explains. “The amount of money being raised by House and Senate candidates is staggering. Some calculators are not going to have spaces left on their LCD screens for all those numbers. It’s unbelievable.”
O’Brien says K Street’s budgets aren’t limitless when it comes to campaign giving.
“Most normal people have to make judgments about this sort of thing. You can’t just accommodate every request you get,” O’Brien says. “There’s nothing acrimonious about it. Sometimes, it’s regrettable but that’s the way it is.”
Lobbyists note that top donors can still rebuff campaigns when they come calling.
“This is not rocket science,” says one GOP lobbyist. “If you’re at this point in life when you can give this much, you should have the set to be able to say no.”
Elections are now dominated by outside groups that often spend more on races than the candidates running. Independent organizations like Super PACs can raise unlimited funds after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.
In addition, under the $123,200 cap, donors could only give $74,600 to national party committees and $48,600 to candidates. Those limits often meant that party committees had to compete between each other for donors. But with McCutcheon doing away with the overall caps, contributors can give to the maximum amount to each party committee.
“There was always the case of who do you love more: the DNC, the DSCC or the DCCC? That’s not the case anymore,” Fraioli says. “You can just write a check to each.”
Lobbyists are often former campaign aides, party officials or congressional staffers so contributing to everyone in their party appeals to their partisan instincts.
“From my perspective, I spent decades raising money for Democratic candidates and I’m more than happy to keep giving to the team,” says David Castagnetti, partner of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen Bingel & Thomas. Like other K Streeters, Castagnetti has exceeded the old limit for campaign giving, contributing about $145,000 for the 2014 campaign cycle.
The parties too have begun to take advantage of the McCutcheon ruling.Since the high court decision last April, Republicans and Democrats have created joint fundraising committees (JFCs) that can spread one massive campaign contribution to a dozen or more recipients, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis. These committees existed before McCutcheon but now are no longer held to any limits.
Campaign finance watchdogs warn that this is only the start of a new mode of election fundraising.
“This is just the beginning. McCutcheon is a decision written for millionaires and billionaires. Lobbyists and special interests may have some play here, but this about allowing the richest people to give far more money than they could before,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a non-profit group working for more campaign finance transparency. “The impact is going to be very wealthy people giving substantially more money and buying more influence over federal officeholders and government policies.”
Super PACs were first used during the 2010 campaign but came to dominate the 2012 election. This year’s midterms may be the joint fundraising committees’ test run.
“I don’t think you have seen the infrastructure come into existence yet,” Bryner says. “Next cycle, you will see the numbers climb as the parties become more familiar and comfortable with the mega-JFCs and more people will blow past the pre-McCutcheon caps.”
Fundraising was at a breakneck pace this past cycle as campaigns tried to keep up with their rivals in outside spending groups. Several close Senate races also revved up the money race.
“The campaign still has its own needs as well and you need to raise the money more than ever,” Castagnetti says. “It feels like there are more events, more requests are coming in. More people are calling than normally would call.”
Kies says fundraising appeals became more and more desperate during the election year.
“They have become increasingly dire. It’s amazing how much the rhetoric has turned up. To some extent, that reflects that there [was] so much at stake in this election,” says the Republican lobbyist.
Kevin Bogardus covers agencies for E&E Publishing. He lives in Washington, D.C.