WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed victory Thursday following a Supreme Court decision that overturns limits on corporate campaign financing — a ruling that not only vindicates the lawmaker's long-held position on campaign donations as free speech but could also have implications in the contentious race for retiring Sen. Jim Bunning's seat.
"For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process," said McConnell, a longtime opponent of such restrictions. "With today's monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day."
McConnell made similar arguments during his pushback against Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign finance reform efforts in 2002. At the time, McConnell said McCain's efforts to limit campaign spending would inhibit political free speech and could particularly hurt Republicans.
McConnell's opposition to campaign finance reform legislation helped move the 2003 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold bill, before the Supreme Court. The court's decision Thursday rolls back a key provision of the McCain-Feingold measure, a move McConnell praised.
"Our democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all," said McConnell, whose attorney stood shoulder to shoulder with attorneys representing the case's plaintiffs on the steps of the Supreme Court on Thursday following the ruling.
Thursday's decision, along with a 2008 Supreme Court ruling striking down the "millionaire's amendment," a provision that sought to level the campaign-funding playing field for candidates facing wealthy opponents, means more money can be spent on federal elections.
McConnell has "had a good week, no doubt about it," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. "Theoretically this could help Republicans regain some sort of financial advantage going into the mid-term elections."
The ruling could also have implications in McConnell's home state of Kentucky, where Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson is headed for a primary showdown against Rand Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Rand Paul's campaign coffers have received a big boost from a network of supporters and donors to his father's unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid.
Thus far he's outraised his better-known rival, $1.7 million to $1.2 million, according to October reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. However, a change in corporate campaign finance limitations might give Grayson a boost through contributions from wealthy corporations eager to support a candidate with more established Republican ties.
"Obviously Rand Paul isn't going to get and probably doesn't want a lot of corporate money," Duffy said.
The Paul campaign said its strong showing in opinion polls and previous financial quarters will sway deep-pocketed donors.
All the candidates say they are studying the ruling's implications for future fund-raising.
"On the whole it's a plus for Republicans for 2010," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But this ruling also applies to corporations and also unions and non-profits that do favor Democrats. Also the Democratic Party has done better than the Republicans in fund-raising in every category this year. "