Supreme Court Ruling's Impact on Local Races?

The Supreme Court's earth-shattering ruling on campaign finance, which allows corporations to spend freely in their bid to influence elections, will undoubtedly have a major impact on federal elections. And that is getting plenty of attention in the press. But it is less clear how it will effect state and local races.

Rhode Island law currently bans direct corporate contributions to campaigns. And that prohibition should remain untouched by the court decision, which focuses on independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.

But what is the impact on independent expenditures in Rhode Island races? Well, it is not quite clear what current state law says about independent expenditures:

§ 17-25-10  Lawful methods of contributing to support of candidates  

(b) It shall be lawful for any person, not otherwise prohibited by law and not acting in concert with any other person or group, to expend personally from that person's own funds a sum which is not to be repaid to him or her for any purpose not prohibited by law to support or defeat a candidate; provided, that any person making the expenditure shall be required to report all of his or her expenditures and expenses, if the total of the money so expended exceeds one hundred dollars ($100) within a calendar year, to the board of elections within seven (7) days of making the expenditure and to the campaign treasurer of the candidate or political party committee on whose behalf the expenditure or contribution was made, or to his or her deputy, within seven (7) days of making the expenditure, who shall cause the expenditures and expenses to be included in his or her reports to the board of elections. Whether a person is "acting in concert with any other person or group" for the purposes of this subsection shall be determined by application of the standards set forth in § 17-25-23.
A "person" is defined in the law as "an individual, partnership, committee, association, corporation, and any other organization."
This provision would seem to allow a corporation to make unlimited, independent expenditures - as long as a given expenditure is reported to the board of elections and to the campaign it is designed to support. The campaign is then required to report the expenditure, too.
But is reporting the expenditure all that is required? Or does the expenditure count as an in-kind contribution to the campaign? And if so, would a large expenditure violate contribution limits?
I asked these questions of Rick Thornton, state director of campaign finance. He said, simply, that the matter had never been tested before - that independent expenditures, to date, have never been large enough to raise an issue. He did not offer an opinion on whether a large expenditure would violate contribution limits.
It is, in some ways, an academic debate now. Whatever the existing law says, it seems clear that the Supreme Court decision eliminates any barriers to independent expenditures by corporations. The next question, then, is will it matter?
In a small state like Rhode Island, a relatively small amount of money - say, $1 million - could have a major impact on a gubernatorial race. It is far from clear, though, who will benefit.
Will corporations spend big money in little ole Rhody? And if they do, will Republicans be the beneficiaries? Not necessarily. In a state like Rhode Island, where the GOP is so anemic, donors might be more interested in funding the Democrats they think will win.
The Democratic Party, though, is hardly a monolith. And one can imagine, say, Chamber of Commerce dollars supporting moderates and conservatives within the party, at the expense of liberals. 
On the federal level, corporations could certainly go after Rhode Island's all-Democratic delegation. But it is also easy to imagine the defense industry coming to the aid of Patrick Kennedy or Jack Reed, both of whom have steered significant Washington money to local contractors. 
And then there is the wild card: the wealthy ideologue. A retired CEO with an intense dislike for all things Kennedy could spend money to knock the congressman out of his seat. Another, with a more liberal bent, could support him. And the spending, on either side, could become a big campaign issue and backfire. The possibilities are endless.
Outside of the partisan impacts, one thing is clear: dumping a whole bunch of corporate money into a state with an already well-deserved reputation for corruption is not a good thing.
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