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For Minnesota’s maxed-out donors, court ruling gives new leeway

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s lifting of the $117,000 cap for donations may lead to more clout for an elite group of political funders.


WASHINGTON — Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision opening the door to limitless donations to federal campaigns really affects only a small elite group of political contributors, though it’s likely to immediately change how campaigns raise cash.

Unless you considered forking over $117,000 to political campaigns in 2012 — the cap for aggregate federal donations that cycle — your political donations are unlikely to change too much under last Wednesday’s ruling in the McCutcheon case. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, only nine Minnesotans hit that cap, a group that includes writer and radio host Garrison Keillor, Gov. Mark Dayton’s late aunt Mary Lee Dayton, former Cargill vice president Fredrick Corrigan and his wife and former Pepsi executive Robert Pohlad, of the Minnesota Twins Pohlads. Five of the donors give exclusively to Republicans, four to Democrats. (Disclosure: two of the nine Minnesotans to hit the donations cap, Garrison Keillor and Samuel Heins, have made financial contributions to MinnPost.)

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The Supreme Court's ruling said that the cap on overall contributions to federal candidates, parties and political action committees was unnecessary as a means for preventing corruption in the political process — the limits on contributions to individual candidates and party units still stand. The decision lifted the total cap and allows donors to contribute to as many campaigns and committees that they want, as long as they abide by caps on individual contributions.

Around the country, only 644 individuals hit the donation cap in 2012 out of 1.2 million donors, CRP calculated.

(Note: CRP’s list of maxed-out donors has a lot of caveats, including the data’s lack of differentiation between same-named fathers and sons, spotty documentation for contribution refunds and overlap between common names, which is why some of the contribution information is over the 2012 cap. MinnPost’s further analysis, in the capsules below, which used CRP’s data, leaves out donations to certain types of political committees that fell under the cap. Taken together, consider this an imprecise analysis, but as accurate as is possible given the murkiness of contribution data and reporting rules.)

Bob Biersack, a CRP senior fellow, said these mega-donors are likely to take advantage of their new contribution rights to maximize their influence in races around the country. They can do that by layering their contributions, donating to not just candidates in tight races, but also the state party committees, national campaign committees and outside political groups that will spend on those races.

Further, Biersack said, once they’ve hit their personal donation limits for those committees, they can give to other, unrelated entities that might end up redistributing funds to those races anyway: A Democrat in California, for example, can give to the California Democratic Party knowing it will eventually make donations of its own to more competitive areas around the country.

Taken together, there’s a multiplying effect: Donors can not only donate to more races, but target their donations to get the most bang for the buck.

“They’ll be able to spread money around, but they’ll also be able to bring a lot of the money to bear in the closest races,” he said.

Top donors given more latitude

Of course, this really only applies to those who make it a habit to give as much as they can to political campaigns. But it still changes the way these donors use their contributions.

For example, take Minneapolis real estate investor Scott Weber, who donated an average of $3,367 to mostly congressional candidates last cycle. That total is well below the $5,000 contribution limit for those candidates. If he wanted to, Weber or a donor like him could give the maximum donation to each of his recipients and greatly increase his overall totals.

Likewise, most of Minnesota’s big donors gave to a handful of state parties around the country, donations capped at $10,000 each. A donor could make just a few such maxed-out donations before hitting the cap in 2012; now, state parties can accept the biggest possible checks from anyone willing to give.

Even so, Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey said he isn’t sure the McCutcheon decision will have much impact on state party operations. He noted that there’s nothing stopping big donors from giving the maximum to the party right now, adding he could only imagine a surge in new donations if Minnesota had a particularly marquee federal race.

“At that point, there are so many other routes for people to participate,” like donations to PACs or directly to candidates, he said. “My initial read is that it would have a limited impact.”

Spreading the money around

There is a sneaky way for donors to indirectly help national or state parties if they’ve already hit their individual caps. Since congressional candidates can contribute unlimited funds to their parties, donors could give to especially safe members of Congress with the tacit understanding that the funds would eventually make their way to the party apparatus, which would then spend the funds on the most hotly contested races.

Rep. Keith Ellison said that “could be the implication” of the McCutcheon ruling. He also said he expects big donors to give to more out-of-state candidates than they do now. With a few exceptions (Ellison being the most prominent), most members of the Minnesota U.S. House delegation receive most of their big contributions from in-state donors. But all of Minnesota’s maxed-out donors gave more to out-of-state candidates and causes.

“It’s like, look, if I want to see Republicans win, or I want to see Democrats win, but now there’s no limit, I can give to everybody, give me a list and I’ll just give to whoever you say,” Ellison said. “I think you’ll get more of that, and that is even more corrosive than it is now.”

Already members of Congress have indicated they’re going to take advantage of the new rules no matter how they feel about them. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s political operation, for example, was soliciting big donations last week even as she railed against the court’s ruling.

Rep. Tim Walz, who heads up a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee effort to protect vulnerable incumbents, said he’s encouraging members to utilize the new limits even though he and many other Democrats support rewriting federal campaign finance laws.

“I would say, it seems so counter-intuitive, I’m one of the strongest advocates of campaign finance reform, but the rules are the way they are right now, so go out and call folks up, I guess,” he said.

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Minnesota's maxed-out donors

During the 2012 election cycle, nine Minnesotans brushed up against the recently overturned overall cap for donations to campaigns for federal office, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Below are profiles of those donors giving, built from a MinnPost analysis of CRP's Open Secrets records, which are based on FEC filings.

Note: This list was compiled from CRP's Open Secrets donor lookup service. For the analysis, MinnPost looked at Federal political donations from the years 2011 and 2012. Please consider the following caveats:

  • Donations to recount funds don't count toward the limit, but these donations aren't always identified as such in the data we get from the FEC.
  • Jrs and Srs aren't always identified in the data, so fathers may be credited with donations from their sons and vice-versa.
  • Sometimes refunds and contributions that were intended for a previous cycle aren't identified as such in the data, so mistakenly get applied to a more recent cycle.
  • Some names are very common and difficult to match.
  • Refunds often contain far less information about the donor, so can be hard to match.

Dakota Wesleyan
Glenda Corrigan
Gives to:Republicans
Total given, 2012 cycle:$119,800
Number of candidates/organizations:14
Amount donated to parties:$77,300
Amount donated to candidates:42,500
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:35,000
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties84,800
Dakota Wesleyan
Fredrick 'Fritz' Corrigan
Retired (Cargill, Mosaic)
Gives to:Republicans
Total given, 2012 cycle:$176,675
Number of candidates/organizations:25
Amount donated to parties:$119,875
Amount donated to candidates:56,800
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:48,500
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties128,175
Mary Lee Dayton
Retired/Homemaker (deceased)
Gives to:  Democrats
Total given, 2012 cycle:$107,050
Number of candidates/organizations:27
Amount donated to parties:$96,325
Amount donated to candidates:19,425
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:11,375
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties95,675
Photo by Velenchenko
Garrison Keillor
Gives to:  Democrats
Total given, 2012 cycle:$147,150
Number of candidates/organizations:33
Amount donated to parties:$111,000
Amount donated to candidates:32,500
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:23,950
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties123,200
Robert Pohlad
Pohlad Companies
Gives to:  Democrats
Total given, 2012 cycle:$133,600
Number of candidates/organizations:20
Amount donated to parties:$104,100
Amount donated to candidates:19,500
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:12,000
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties121,600
Scott Weber
Real Estate Investor
Gives to:Republicans
Total given, 2012 cycle:$134,700
Number of candidates/organizations:40
Amount donated to parties:-
Amount donated to candidates:$109,700
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:29,900
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties104,800
Donald Oren
Dart Transit Co.
Gives to:Republicans
Total given, 2012 cycle:$133,250
Number of candidates/organizations:24
Amount donated to parties:$69,500
Amount donated to candidates:48,750
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:33,500
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties99,750
Samuel Heins
Heins, Mills & Olson Attorneys
Gives to:  Democrats
Total given, 2012 cycle:$133,658
Number of candidates/organizations:24
Amount donated to parties:$96,858
Amount donated to candidates:26,800
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:35,634
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties98,024
Robert Ulrich
Retired (Target)
Gives to:Republicans
Total given, 2012 cycle:$129,000
Number of candidates/organizations:14
Amount donated to parties:$81,600
Amount donated to candidates:36,900
Total to Minnesota candidates/parties:51,900
Total to out-of-state candidates/parties77,100