The Supreme Court decision continues the trend of giving those with more more ability to influence the political system.
FORTUNE — Today’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling striking down the overall limits on political contributions to candidates and to committees was hardly a shock. Indeed, many people watching the McCutcheon v. FEC decision expected the Court to go further, striking down all limits. After today’s ruling, individuals remain unable to donate more than $2,600 per campaign cycle directly to a candidate, but they can now donate to as many candidates and political parties as they’d like.
And yet, the overall message is clear. People with money will continue to have disproportionate influence on elections, and the election system itself will continue to be flooded with that money, not only through the Super PAC system, which sprung up outside of the traditional campaign finance system, but once again through the political parties, which had seen their clout decline in recent years. Says Becki Donatelli, president of Campaign Solutions, a digital political consulting firm: “The two big winners out of this are the party committees, because a wealthy person can now give directly, and secondly, the sophisticated major donor. People who know what they are doing and had to choose between campaigns now don’t have to do that anymore.”
This gives more options to people like Joe Ricketts, the Ameritrade founder and billionaire who has spent tens of millions both through his Super PAC, EndingSpending.com, and contributing directly to campaigns. (For more on Ricketts, see my 2012 profile of him.) According to Mark Crain at Moveon.org, there were only 1,200 individuals who even hit the campaign finance limits in the election of 2012. “So we’re talking about 1,200 people who this ruling will benefit.”
The money, too, may not seem like much, but being able to give to unlimited numbers of candidates means that those with the means can spread their contributions across wider swaths of the political system. Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center compares it to another famous campaign finance ruling with a big impact on political races. “Citizens United may have launched a nuclear weapon, but this one is close to that.” Says Malloy: “There is a snowball effect. If it’s all added up, you can give over $3.5 million to your side and that doesn’t even impact the PAC contributions.” No one knows which party will benefit — after all, the Republicans far outspent the Democrats in 2012 but didn’t win the Presidency. But what we know for sure is that, as this election cycle picks up, the torrent of junk mail, radio attacks, and TV campaigns may hit a new high. Or is it a new low?