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Self-funded candidate rule brings campaign finance to court

A part of the McCain-Feingold reform law is being contested on behalf of wealthy candidates running for Congress.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 2008

Self-financed: Jack Davis (D), who ran for Congress in '06, on Election Day in Clarence, N.Y. He lost to the incumbent.

Don Heupel/AP/File

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WASHINGTON

– The US Supreme Court is set to consider the constitutionality of a provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law designed to "level the playing field" between candidates spending their own money to win political office and candidates relying primarily on contributions from others.

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In oral argument Tuesday, the high court will examine whether the so-called "millionaires' amendment" violates the free-speech and equal-protection rights of self-funded candidates trying to win a seat in Congress.

The amendment applies only to candidates for the US Senate and House of Representatives. Different rules govern presidential campaigns.

The measure, also known as Section 319 of the McCain-Feingold law, requires candidates who are self-financing their campaigns to abide by stringent finance reporting requirements that don't apply to other candidates. In addition, once a candidate's personal spending in a House race crosses a $350,000 threshold, contribution limits are relaxed for all other candidates in the same race.

The other candidates may then accept three times the usual $2,300 limit from individual contributors and receive unlimited coordinated expenditures from political parties. The self-financing candidate, meanwhile, must continue to abide by the lower contribution limits.

Section 319 is designed to undercut the advantages of using personal wealth to wage a political campaign and to prevent wealthy candidates from monopolizing a race.

"Sometimes a self-financer is able to use their money to swamp an opponent and dominate the discussion – really make the campaign dialogue more of a monologue," says Jennifer Steen, a political scientist at Boston College and author of the 2006 book "Self-Financed Candidates in Congressional Elections."

The law is also aimed at countering a perception that anyone wealthy enough can buy a seat in Congress.

Opponents of Section 319 say it is an incumbent protection scheme passed by members of Congress to insulate themselves from challenges by wealthy opponents.

Supporters say tripling contribution limits is necessary to "level the playing field" in congressional campaigns, but campaign-reform laws do not offer similar benefits to candidates of modest means seeking to unseat incumbent members of Congress who have amassed sizable campaign war chests.

"Congress elected to go after the personal millionaires as opposed to the incumbent millionaires," says Andrew Herman, who is arguing the case at the high court on behalf of a wealthy businessman from upstate New York who is running for Congress.

Jack Davis twice ran unsuccessful campaigns to represent New York's 26th Congressional District. On April 15, he announced he is running again in 2008.

Mr. Davis, a Democrat, has pledged to pay his own campaign bills rather than seek support from special-interest groups. In 2004, he spent $1.26 million of his own money. In 2006, he lost by four percentage points after spending $2.27 million.

In contrast, Davis's opponent in 2006, Thomas Reynolds, a four-term Republican on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, spent $5.1 million. That total included a $1.15 million war chest that existed at the start of the 2006 campaign cycle. At the time, Representative Reynolds was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the party's campaign organization.

Despite these advantages, incumbent Reynolds is the one who qualified under the millionaires' amendment for campaign-finance law exemptions that could have yielded him an additional $1.46 million in multiple contributions. In addition, he could have received unlimited help from the NRCC, which he chaired.

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