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Shaun McCutcheon hopes donation in S. Carolina election will be first of many nationwide

Alabama Republican is named party to upcoming Supreme Court campaign finance case

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Shaun McCutcheon, the Alabama Republican who is the lead plaintiff in a case to overturn the government’s existing biennial limit on campaign contributions, has thrown his financial support behind Larry Grooms, a conservative state senator vying for the GOP nomination in South Carolina 1st Congressional District’s special election.

McCutcheon donated $1,776 to Grooms on Friday, according to documents recently filed with the Federal Election Commission. It’s McCutcheon’s first federal-level donation of the 2013-14 election cycle — the South Carolina primary is today — and if he has his way, it’ll be the first of a multitude.

McCutcheon’s legal challenge to the existing biennial aggregate contribution limit is slated to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court later this year. And as far as he’s concerned, removing the cap is “a free speech issue,” McCutcheon told the Center for Public Integrity last week while attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.

“I just want to donate to more candidates,” he said, adding rhetorically: “Why am I not free to spend money however I want?”

McCutcheon argued that removing the biennial limit would benefit non-incumbent candidates because they’d have a greater chance of scoring a donation from donors who have the means — if not today the legal right — to spread their cash far and wide.

The change would also bring individuals’ federal-level donation rights in line with those of political action committees, which do not have to abide by an overall donation limit.

“If we win, we’ll create more competition in the political market,” McCutcheon said. “We the people will have more influence.”

Campaign finance reformers, however, assert that lifting the overall campaign contribution limit would give more power to the nation’s wealthiest people and further marginalize the political strength of those without much money to spend on politics.

There is currently a $123,200 overall limit on federal-level campaign contributions during the two-year 2013-14 election cycle. That’s about two-and-a-half times the current U.S. median household income.

This biennial limit is two-pronged. There is a $48,600 to limit on combined donations to all candidates and a $74,600 limit on all combined gifts to political action committees and parties.

Donations to super PACs, which can legally accept donations of unlimited size, are not affected by the aggregate contribution limit.

Very few Americans hit the biennial limit. During the last election, the Center for Responsive Politics calculated that just 0.1 percent of American adults gave at least $2,500 to a federal candidate or committee.

The McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case does not address the legality of maximum donations to individual candidates. Contribution limits to candidates and party committees are adjusted upward for inflation every election cycle. Currently, a person may donate up to $2,600 per election to one candidate, up from $2,500 during the 2012 election cycle.

Individuals are also currently allowed to give up to $32,400 to a national party committee such as the Republican National Committee and $5,000 per year to individual PACs.

Participation in the South Carolina race by McCutcheon, whose profile as a campaign finance deregulator has blossomed of late, comes as votes are being cast today in the Republican primary to replace Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Gov. Nikki Haley elevated Scott to the U.S. Senate after the resignation of Sen. Jim DeMint, who now heads the Heritage Foundation.

The frontrunner in the GOP primary is former Gov. Mark Sanford, who left office in 2011 after a sex scandal involving a mistress in Argentina.

As of today, Sanford has raised about $415,000 as he mounts his political comeback, with donors including businessman David Koch and investor Foster Friess, who each gave $2,500.

For his part, McCutcheon's preferred candidate, Grooms, has raised about $346,000, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of FEC records through publication time.

Other candidates in the race include state Rep. Chip Limehouse, former Charleston County Council member Curtis Bostic, former state Sen. John Kuhn and Teddy Turner, the son of media mogul and environmentalist Ted Turner. Records show that the younger Turner has raised nearly $503,000, with about 70 percent of that sum coming from his own pocket.

Only three super PACs have reported activities in the race, with Grooms and Bostic the sole beneficiaries.

A super PAC called the “Coastal Conservative Fund” spent about $12,000 on pro-Bostic media, while two groups have been touting Grooms, the “Palmetto Conservatives Fund” and the “Conservative Campaign Committee” (which was formerly known as the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama).

Pro-Grooms super PACs have collectively spent about $13,000, records show, with the bulk majority of that coming via the Conservative Campaign Committee.