The U.S. Supreme Court ruling today overturning restrictions on independent spending by corporations and labor unions could have an immediate impact this year in California's U.S. Senate race.
California state campaign finance rules already allow corporations and unions to give directly to independent expenditure campaigns without limits, so the court decision will have little impact on state contests.
But the decision overturns federal rules requiring that corporations and unions establish political action committees, or PACs, to spend on elections. Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and an architect of California campaign finance rules, said the ruling should have a greater impact for corporations, who have access to more money and have been less adept than unions at navigating PAC rules in the past.
As we reported today, Republicans in California believe they have a shot at unseating Sen. Barbara Boxer in November and were emboldened by Scott Brown's victory Tuesday in Massachusetts. Boxer leads all three GOP hopefuls in head-to-head matchups, but she is hovering at or below the 50 percent mark. Conventionally, that's a sign that an incumbent is vulnerable, but Boxer has a history of modest support in early polling.
"It certainly changes the Boxer race," Stern said. "It means corporations, without setting up a PAC, can spend as much as they want opposing Boxer."
While unions would be able to help Boxer, Stern said "they were already able to do it through PACs. Corporations were having more trouble doing so."
A Field Poll released today shows former Congressman Tom Campbell with 30 percent of support among likely GOP voters, followed by former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (25 percent) and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (6 percent).
DeVore raised $1 million, his campaign announced last fall. Fiorina's announced she had raised nearly $1.1 million in an abbreviated period last year, while she loaned her own campaign $2.5 million. Campbell entered the race last week and said Tuesday he was starting anew because he could not transfer funds from his gubernatorial account.
Boxer said this week that she had $7.2 million in cash on hand as of Dec. 31 and raised $5.9 million in 2009.
Ron Nehring, chairman of the California Republican Party, lauded the Supreme Court ruling because he said campaign finance rules had a "chilling effect on free speech." He pointed to the situation at hand in the ruling, in which a conservative group wanted to distribute en masse a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton outside of federal election rules.
Nehring disputed Democratic assertions that Republicans stand to gain more by the Supreme Court decision. "Democrats are raising more money from corporate America than Republicans," he said.
Campaign finance loopholes have existed, such as so-called "527" rules allowing groups to raise money outside of federal limits. Nehring said he believes the court ruling won't substantially change the amount of money spent by corporations but rather create more disclosure. "The more convoluted the campaign finance system becomes, the more money that goes into politics through vehicles other than campaigns and political parties," he said.
But Bill Carrick, a Democratic political strategist, thought the ruling would definitely give a boost to Republican campaigns.
"I think conventional wisdom, which is so often wrong, may be right in this case," Carrick said. "This is obviously going to help conservatives and Republicans more than Democrats because corporations and corporate-backed outside groups tend to align with conservative interests. I think the amount of money that unions, trial lawyers and environmental groups can put into this is much, much lower than what corporate America can spend."