The collapse of U.S. campaign finance regulations set the stage for a 2016 presidential race brimming with cash. Advocates for limits on political donations say a small number of wealthy donors are drowning out the common folk. Billionaire contributors say they’re exercising their free speech rights. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has been unwilling to silence the spending, money is doing a lot of talking.
The two major parties’ candidates for president were former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrat, and New York real-estate developer Donald Trump, the Republican and winner. There were more than 40 fund-raising committees and organizations associated with them. Some of the groups were super-PACs, political action committees that, thanks to a 2010 federal court ruling, could raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and labor unions. Unlike traditional PACs, super-PACs cannot contribute directly to or coordinate their spending with a candidate, but they can spend unlimited amounts on advertisements and other efforts to support a candidate or attack her opponent. In addition, organizations known as 501(c)(4)s, the IRS code for tax-exempt “social welfare” groups that do work broadly benefiting the community, also spend money to influence elections. Behind both super-PACs, which disclose their donors, and 501(c)4s, which don’t, are billionaires with big stakes in elections. They include Republican casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who has opposed proposals to legalize online gambling, and Democratic investor Tom Steyer, who advocates for clean energy. Some wealthy players, notably industrialists David and Charles Koch, whose company lobbies to loosen regulations on oil and gas, run their own political operations. All this has pushed up the costs of campaigns. The amount spent on the 2016 Senate race in Pennsylvania, at least $139 million, has broken the record $121 million spent by candidates, parties and outside groups during the 2014 North Carolina Senate contest.