Maine has two political traditions of which Mainers are rightly proud.
We have a strong independent streak, with more unenrolled voters and ticket-splitters than hard-core partisans. And we have a history of sending to Washington pragmatic people who look out for the interests of our small state, even when they are not in line with those of national party organizations.
The Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission threatens both of these practices.
The decision ends the aggregate limits on contributions that blocked extremely wealthy donors from spending more than $123,000 to influence federal elections during a two-year cycle. Even the richest political players had to pick and choose which candidates they wanted to support. Now, though, they can give maximum contributions to individual candidates, party organizations and PACs in all 50 states at once, with no intent other than sending more Democrats or more Republicans to Washington.
PARTIES THE BIGGEST WINNERS
The big winners here are not the rich — they have always been able to use their money to make their voices heard. But the national party organizations that will become the switching station for distributing these new funds around the country will be able to reward the candidates sensitive to the establishment’s concerns, even if they are different from the concerns of people in places such as Maine.
The court’s majority said this was necessary to protect free speech, but this ruling is concerned with the speech of only a few people: those with the wherewithal to blow more than $123,000 on politics.
When fewer voices are heard, agendas get narrower. We already have seen the negative side of a polarized political system. Enriching party organizations will add to the divisions that have rewarded ideological purity and punished compromise.
Although the court ruling affected only elections for federal office, the impact in Maine could reach every race. The Maine law that limits aggregate contributions in state races now will be considered unconstitutional. Without those limits, a California software mogul could make a maximum contribution to every Democrat or Republican running for the Maine Legislature. Those contributions could be funneled into a few tight races, or conceivably into a single race, giving a businessman on the other side of the country more influence into how state government operates than the people who live here.
With this decision and the Citizens United case in 2010, which allowed unlimited spending by groups outside campaign organizations, this court has destroyed the foundations of campaign finance reforms installed after the Watergate scandals of the 1970s. Even Justice Clarence Thomas said as much in a concurring opinion that chided his fellow conservatives for not going all the way and eliminating all campaign contribution limits completely, saying they had left behind a “rule without a rationale” and “a halfway house of our own design.”
It would take a constitutional amendment to fix the damage the court has done, but fortunately, Maine does not have to wait for that to protect the integrity of its elections.
Maine still has the Clean Election Act, which gives candidates who look for support only from voters in their districts a fighting chance in an election against a well-funded opponent.
With the proper support, Maine’s public financing law could keep our state proud of its independent voters and pragmatic elected officials even as the outside money comes rolling in.