Capitol Report: These are the basics of campaign finance in 2020 — in two handy charts

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As President Donald Trump and the 2020 Democrats battle for the White House, their war chests will go a long way toward determining who comes out on top.

And their fundraising efforts are subject to some restrictions, as shown in the table below.

If you want to make a straightforward donation to a candidate’s main campaign committee, you can’t give more than $2,800, though it can total $5,600 if you contribute for both the primary and general elections. But you — and corporations and unions — can give unlimited amounts to “super PACs” that support particular candidates for the presidency or other federal offices, and there are donation options in between those two extremes.

Candidate committee State, district or local party committee National party committee Other national party committee accounts Trump Victory Comm. Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund Super PAC
Maximum that a person can donate per year $5,600 $10,000 (combined) $35,500 $106,500 per account $580,600 $865,000 No limit

Source: FEC, MarketWatch

“Any billionaire, any millionaire, any wealthy special-interest business executive, union leader, whatever your backing is — $5,600 is the most that you’re going to be able to donate to a candidate,” said Michael Beckel, research director at nonpartisan reform group Issue One. “Which is why the role of outside groups — like super PACs and dark-money groups that have no contribution limits — is so vital for people to understand.”

Related: How America’s CEOs are giving $2,800 or $5,600 to White House hopefuls

And see: Bernie Sanders posts big January fundraising haul, raking in $25 million

A super PAC is an independent political action committee that isn’t supposed to contribute directly to a candidate or coordinate with him or her. Dark money refers to election-related spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors, and it has become a growing force following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling a decade ago, which struck down a ban on political spending by corporations. In the 2020 presidential race, the contenders that have super PACs supporting them include Trump and Democratic candidates Joe Biden, Deval Patrick and Andrew Yang.

A recent Issue One report said the campaigns of Republican and Democratic politicians for a range of offices often have worked in tandem with super PACs and dark-money groups even though such groups are legally required to be independent.

“It’s disturbingly common how frequently political operatives are pushing the boundaries,” Beckel said. “People election after election are finding new creative ways to skirt the rules and violate the spirit of the law, if not necessarily the letter of the law, and the [Federal Election Commission], unfortunately, has deadlocked on a number of these cases in the past decade.”

But so far, super PACs haven’t been particularly active in the Democratic primary process. Instead, the 2020 race has been unique for both the super-wealthy White House hopefuls who are involved and the number of small-donors who have given to other campaigns, according to Beckel.

“At the presidential level, we’re seeing an astonishing amount of money being raised and spent, in part because we’ve got two self-funding billionaires who are willing to spend heaps of their own money pursuing the Democratic nomination,” he said, referring to billionaire White House hopefuls Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer who face no limits on how much of their own money ends up pouring into their campaigns. Bloomberg stands out in particular for having spent $217 million on TV and digital ads so far, as that amounts to roughly three-quarters of the spending by all other campaigns combined, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have raised the bulk of their money from small-dollar donors, and Trump also has found success with those types of donors, Beckel added. Regular people “are being engaged on both sides of the aisle in the presidential race,” he said.

Sanders raised the most money in 2019 among the 2020 Democrats with a total of $96 million, while Trump’s campaign brought in $143 million.

Related: Sanders leads in fourth-quarter fundraising, followed by Buttigieg, Biden and Warren

Beyond the self-funded campaign and super PAC, campaign finance has other terms that are unique to the field, such as the joint fundraising committee.

Examples of joint fundraising groups are the Trump Victory Committee and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee (also known as T-Magic), which are combined efforts of Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee that can rake in six-figure donations. Trump Victory, thanks to working with state GOP groups, can accept as much as $580,600 a year from an individual donor, while “T-Magic” can get as much as $360,600 but is usually a small-dollar operation, a recent Washington Post report noted.

After the Democrats pick a presidential nominee, he or she will be able to set up joint fundraising groups with the Democratic National Committee that can bring in more than $2,800 or $5,600 per donor. But the DNC already does have a joint fundraising committee with state groups — the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund — that can accept as much as $865,000 a year from an individual donor.

The table below defines some of the most commonly used words or phrases in campaign finance:

Term Definition
Bundler A top campaign fundraiser
Campaign committee A candidate’s principal political group for raising money
Exploratory committee A group that must limit itself to testing the waters for a candidate, not actual campaigning
Joint fundraising committee Group created by two or more candidates, PACs or party committees
Political action committee (PAC) Group organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect or defeat a candidate
Public financing An option that presidential campaigns haven’t been using because it sets spending limits
Self-funded campaign A candidate using personal funds to campaign; there are no limits on how much can be used
Super PAC Independent group that faces no limits on how much it raises or spends on a federal race
Suspended campaign What often happens when a candidate ends a run but doesn’t formally shut down a campaign committee

Source: Center for Responsive Politics, FEC, MarketWatch

What about election losers and their money?

Politicians who flop in their races but still have leftover campaign funds are barred from using the money for personal expenses, but beyond that they have a lot of options. They can refund money to donors, make contributions to political allies, spend the residual cash on winding down campaign operations, donate to charity or spend leftover money on a different run for federal office.

See: What politicians can do with the money left over from their failed runs

This report was first published on Jan. 22, 2020.

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