It was an eye-popping number.
In a single day, the Connecticut Republican Party doubled its receipts by taking in $877,803, all of it from out-of-state donors, including the Las Vegas casino billionaire, Sheldon G. Adelson, and the New York sports and cable television magnate, James L. Dolan.
The 223 contributions arrived in an electronic transfer on Sept. 30 from the Trump Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee affiliated with the Republican National Committee, the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, and 21 state Republican party committees. The Connecticut party, whose congressional candidates are woefully underfunded, was flush – if only for minutes.
The money left in a lump sum, electronically bounced to the Republican National Committee, where it is expected to be redirected to battleground states to support Trump and down-ballot candidates. Similar transfers through the 20 other state GOP accounts sent millions to the RNC, a bit of accounting magic that freed mega-donors like Adelson and his wife, Miriam, from an annual contribution limit of $33,400 to a national political party or $2,700 to Trump’s presidential campaign.
“It is a circumvention of the limits on how much a person can give to the party,” said Paul Ryan, a campaign finance lawyer with Common Cause. “It is also fairly characterized as a circumvention of the limits someone can give to a candidate.”
And it is legal.
What advocates of campaign finance reform decry as a loophole was endorsed in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts in April 2014 and abetted by language inserted into a budget bill eight months later, reportedly by a prominent Democrat lawyer named Marc Elias. His present duties include serving as general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, which has raised more money than Trump’s with its joint fundraising committee.
“Both parties have dirty hands in this, and voters are getting the short end of the stick,” Ryan said.
The Clinton campaign struck first with the Hillary Victory Fund, an alliance of her campaign, the Democratic National Committee and about three dozen state Democratic parties, though not Connecticut’s. It raised $402 million as of Sept. 30, compared to $87 million for Trump Victory.
Joint fundraising committees are touted by the national parties as an efficient way for campaign committees and state and national parties to tap major donors for one contribution that is shared among the participants.
But their impact is far greater than efficiency. They blow up campaign contribution limits, giving the richest donors yet another route to influence U.S. campaigns.
The contribution limit for a joint fundraising committee is set by adding up the limits of what the participating candidates and organizations can accept individually: $2,700 for a federal candidate, $10,000 for a state party, $33,400 for a national party and $100,200 to special national party accounts.
State parties are especially valuable partners, because they are so numerous —and they can make unlimited transfers to the national parties, as can candidate committees. Sign up just 11 state parties, as Trump Victory originally did, and that means every contributor can give at least $110,000.
Trump Victory, based on an agreement with the 11 state parties, the RNC and others, opened for business with a maximum contribution limit of $449,400. It has since added 10 state parties, boosting its maximum by another $100,000, to $549,400.
The Connecticut GOP was one of the 11 state parties that signed a joint fundraising agreement in May with the Republican National Committee and Trump’s presidential campaign. The Clinton campaign has two joint fundraising agreements, involving about three dozen state committees.
Until 2014, joint fundraising committees were constrained by an aggregate limit of $123,200 that an individual could contribute every two years to candidates, parties and political committees – less than one quarter of the maximum allowed to Trump Victory.
“There was far less room to game the system or circumvent the limits,” Ryan said.
Then came a legal challenge from Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama coal baron who argued that the limit was an unconstitutional limit on his free speech. Then on the staff of the Campaign Legal Center, Ryan was among the lawyers who warned that striking down the aggregate ban would do more than simply allow the rich to make a series of $2,700 contributions to congressional candidates across the country.
It would allow alliances gutting the contribution limits.
“Now, how — how realistic is that?” Justice Samuel Alito asked during oral arguments. “How realistic is it that all of the state party committees, for example, are going to get money and they’re all going to transfer it to one candidate?”
In his majority decision, Robert dismissed those scenarios as “divorced from reality.”
Ryan said Roberts either was “disingenuous or naive when he completely dismissed the use of joint fundraising committees.
“The chief justice was wrong, and I was right,” he said.
The impact of the court’s decision was broadened at the end of 2014, when language inserted in a bipartisan budget bill empowered the national committees to create up to three affiliated committees, each able to accept contributions of $100,200.
Ryan said the joint fundraising committees have become a way for the national parties to further shift their financial support from grass-roots donors to multi-millionaires.
Politico reported that the language was offered by Elias, but his Democratic clients insisted he acted on his own and did not make the change on their behalf.
So, what are Connecticut Republicans getting out of the joint fundraising arrangement?
According to a review of campaign finance records filed last weekend, the state party kept just $30,000 of the nearly $900,000 that flowed through its account on Sept. 30, the final day of the third-quarter reporting period.
“Perhaps it’s a simple matter of the leadership in the state party building their own clout with the national party organization,” Ryan said.
It doesn’t cost them anything, he said.
“They are really just lending their name and that $10,000 limit to that national effort,” he said.
Michael Mandell, the executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said the arrangement is another tie between Connecticut Republicans and Trump.
“It is a statement of support for Trump,” Mandell said. “State parities don’t have to do this.”
J.R. Romano, the Republican state chairman, declined to talk about the specifics of his agreement with Trump and the national party, other than to say his motive was simple.
“We’re very happy to be a part of this,” Romano said. “This money is going to be dedicated to electing candidates, whether its Donald Trump or anyone else, who are ready to fight for everyday families and fight to improve the country and state.”