WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party is taking full advantage of the new campaign contribution accounts and limits slipped into the omnibus budget bill that passed Congress in December.
In the first three months of 2015, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, the three main party committees for Republicans collected more than $5 million for three newly created accounts -- the headquarters, convention and legal services accounts -- as well as for the expanded recount account. The vast majority of this money came in six-figure contributions from wealthy party stalwarts.
Warren Stephens, president of the Arkansas-based financial firm Stephens, Inc., is the top donor to the new accounts after giving $501,000 in contributions to the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican National Committee.
Other six-figure donors to the party accounts include Wisconsin roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks, financial industry titans Ken Griffin, Seth Klarman, Bruce Kovner, Robert Mercer and James Stanard, coal billionaire Joseph Craft, oil and gas services providers Thomas Russell and Charles Joyce and the wealthy Missouri activist Rex Sinquefield.
The total in donations is astounding, considering that a single donor was limited to giving just $32,400 to the recount account in 2014. (The convention, legal services and headquarters accounts did not exist then.) Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision striking down aggregate contribution limits, donors could only give a maximum of $123,200 in total to all candidates, political action committees and party committees.
Last year's Supreme Court decision, in a case known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, ended those limits. But it's the newly created accounts that have really allowed donors to dramatically exceed their previous direct giving to political parties. The new accounts are also allowing lawmakers and candidates to raise much larger contributions.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), recently elected as House Majority Whip, created a joint fundraising committee to collect single contributions from donors to be divided among his campaign, his leadership PAC and the NRCC. Thanks to the new and expanded accounts, Scalise was able to collect six-figure checks -- evidently the first time a lawmaker’s joint fundraising committee has raised money of this size.
The top three donors to the Scalise Leadership Fund were shipyard owner Gary Chouest ($139,000), former Bollinger Shipyards director Donald Bollinger ($100,000) and tugboat company owner Kurt Crosby ($100,000).
The new and expanded party accounts were created as part of negotiations between congressional Republicans and Senate Democrats during the lead-up to the passage of the omnibus budget bill in December. Democratic lawyer Marc Elias was tapped by Senate Democrats to help negotiate increased contribution limits and the creation of new party accounts.
The result was the creation of an account to pay lawyers; an account to pay for political party convention activities (since Congress eliminated public funding for them); an account to pay for party expenses related to the construction, purchase or maintenance of a headquarters building; and the expansion of limits to the recount account. All of the accounts were given the high contribution limit of $100,200.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), apparently cut out of the negotiations to create the accounts, criticized the inclusion of radically higher contribution limits and supported an ultimately unsuccessful effort to strip the provision from the bill before it passed Congress.
In a letter to Democratic House colleagues after the bill’s passage, Pelosi pointed to the new party accounts and their higher contribution limits as reasons to pass new campaign finance reform legislation.
"The inclusion of the outrageous campaign contribution provision gives further evidence of the need for campaign finance reform, and an opportunity for advancing initiatives to empower small donors and all American voters," Pelosi wrote.
And while Senate Democrats were behind the negotiations to create the higher contribution limits, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, along with the other two national Democratic Party committees, have raised comparatively little under them. The three committees -- the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the DSCC -- have raised just $350,000 for these three accounts. No donor has yet given more than what the previous limits allowed.