DemDaily: What Are The Limits?

October 5, 2018

Campaign finance laws in the US have undergone a rollercoaster of change over the last decade, paving the way for unlimited spending by organizations outside the traditional contribution categories.

The greatest contributor was the rise of Super PACS following the 2010 Citizens United and legal decisions, which essentially took the limits off of giving to independent exenditures, and ushered in an era of unprecedented political giving.

The now billions of dollars spent on campaigns in the United States is expected to be an ongoing subject of controversy and a catalyst for reform in the years to come.

In the interim, for those still deciding on your final contributions of 2018 -- a primer on the current entities, limits and options.

All federal and state campaigns are governed by campaign finance laws that regulate the use of money in elections. These include the sources and amounts of contributions to political candidates, campaigns and committees, as well as the disclosure of information about receipts and expenditures.

The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) governs activity related to federal campaigns, which include US Presidential, US Senate, US House, National Party Committees and Political Action Committees (PACs).

Activity related to state and local campaigns, such as Governor, Legislature, State PACs or Ballot Initiatives, is governed by each individual state and their Secretary of State or Board of Elections.  Each state's contributions limits are different and may range from a limit of $500 to $44,000 per election, campaign cycle or calendar year.

Contribution Limits for Federal Campaigns 2017-2018
Donors Candidate Committee Political Action Committee (PAC) State/District/ 
Local Party Committee
National Party Committee Additional National Party Committees
Individual $2,700 per election $5,000 per year $10,000 per year (combined) $33,900 per year $101,700 per account year
Candidate $2,000 per election $5,000 per year No Limit No Limit
PAC (MultiCandidate) $5,000 per election $5,000 per year $5,000 per year (combined) $15,000 per year $45,000 per account year
PAC (NonMulti
$2,700 per election $5,000 per year $10,000 per year (combined) $33,900 per year $101,700 per account year
Party Committee
$5,000 per election (combined) $5,000 per year (combined) No Limit No Limit
National Party Committee $5,000 per election $5,000 per year No Limit No Limit

Contribution Categories
In general, contributions made directly to a specific candidates are called "hard money" and those made to parties and committees are called "soft money."

Individual:  A personal contribution with limits per each election (primary, general, runoff, special).

Candidate:  In addition to their own personal contribution, a candidate may also officially loan his or her campaign larger amounts, to be paid back or forgiven after an election.

Political Action Committee:  A political committee ("separate segregated funds") that raises and spends funds for the purposes of electing or defeating a candidate. A federally registered PAC may contribute to a campaign, party committee and other PACs.

Connected PAC may receive funds from individuals or members associated with a corporation, union, trade group or organization.
Non-Connected PAC, usually associated with an ideological mission or issue, may raise funds from any individual, connected PAC, or organization.

Leadership PACs, set up by current office holders to help other elected officials and candidates, fall under non-connected PACs.

Super PAC: A PAC that makes expenditures independent of campaigns for the purposes of overtly advocating for or against candidates -- often in the form of television, mail or other communications.

In the 2018 election cycle, a total of 2,153 registered Super PACs have raised over $792 Million and spent in excess of $311 Million.

Super PACs may accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and labor organizations, but are prohibited from contributing directly to, or coordinating with, candidate campaigns.  PACs and Super PACs are required by law to disclose all of their donors of over $200.

National Party Committees, and their separate affiliate campaign committees may contribute funds directly to candidates and make additional "coordinated" and "independent" expenditures to support or oppose federal candidates.

Non-Profits & Tax Exempt
Two other forms of major campaign funding that have contributed to the sharp increase in outside spending are 501c4 and 527 organizations, which are governed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Both can accept unlimited contributions, and were not required to report their donors, making them a favored vehicle for many donors (more later on those).

Where To Give
See DemLists' rundown on key House, Senate, Governors and legislative battles:


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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: FEC, Open Secrets, Ballotpedia

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