The Republican National Committee is asking a federal court to restore the ability of national parties to raise unlimited amounts of money and to spend it to help elect state-level candidates.
The case focuses on hotly contested governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia. The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign financing law (PL 107-155) does not allow national parties to give money directly to state candidates. The RNC wants to change that so it can expressly back the party nominee for governor, advertise and send out mailings on behalf of state or local Republican candidates and make get-out-the-vote calls.
The law also bans the parties from taking unlimited big-dollar contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy donors -- a type of donation known as "soft money" -- and the RNC wants to reverse that as well.
The case will be heard Aug. 27 by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and the ruling could be appealed straight to the Supreme Court. An RNC victory would deal a major blow to the landmark campaign finance law named for Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and open the door to a more prominent role for the national parties in state-level races.
Republicans say the law violates the First Amendment by preventing national parties from helping state-level candidates.
"It is ridiculous to treat a national party or a state party as if they are only interested in federal elections," said James Bopp Jr., an Indiana lawyer representing the RNC in a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission.
The FEC replied that Congress has repeatedly limited campaign contributions and the Supreme Court has upheld those restrictions.
Campaign watchdog groups maintain that given the close relationship between national parties and federal officeholders, deep-pocket contributors still will wield more influence in Washington if they're allowed to raise unlimited sums, even if that money is channeled to state-level contests.
"It's always hard to find a smoking gun," said Monica Youn, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's Law School, which is representing Common Cause, League of Women Voters and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
"But it's hard to say, if you're a lawmaker in a close or contested district, and someone tells you they've written a massive check to your political party that's intended to benefit you -- it's hard to say that that doesn't influence your decision-making."
A 5-4 majority of the high court upheld the soft-money ban in 2003; the ruling arose from a case that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., brought against the FEC to prevent limits curbs on fundraising. But some say that result could change with three new members on the high court: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito, who were nominated by President George W. Bush, and new Justice Sonia Sotomayor, chosen by President Obama.