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Money talks: Midterm spending super-charged by new method

A polling station in Washington, D.C.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Heading into Tuesday's crucial midterm elections that will determine the control of the Senate, both parties have benefited for months from a new campaign fundraising method that allows big money donors to cast wide nets of support.

Previously, individual donors were restricted from giving more than $123,000 to candidates, political party committees and political action committees during a two-year election cycle. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in April in the case McCutcheon v. FEC struck down those restrictions.

That has super-charged donations to so-called joint fundraising committees, or JFCs, which increasingly allow donors to disburse large amounts of money across multiple political interests. Contributors donate one sum that committees distribute among candidates, party committees, political action committees and other groups.

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Donations to JFCs have already surpassed $168 million in the 2014 cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The total, which covers reports only through the end of September, marks the largest sum raised by the committees in any nonpresidential election cycle.

"It's a logical extension of the (Supreme Court) decision," said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics

The popularity of JFCs has grown in recent election cycles, as the number of committees actively allocating money has increased in every cycle since 2008. A record 509 committees are already active in the 2014 election cycle, according to data through Sept. 30 compiled by the center.

A lack of aggregate individual limits has led to joint fundraising committees becoming a more convenient form of donating, Bryner said. While caps on donations to federal candidates and state and national party committees still exist, donors are embracing JFCs, according to Bryner.

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The committees had gained momentum before the McCutcheon decision, said Brendan Glavin, data and systems manager at The Campaign Finance Institute. Contributions to the committees topped $500 million in 2008 and skyrocketed to more than $1 billion in 2012.

The success of presidential JFCs in both of those elections may have contributed to their popularity in the 2014 congressional cycle, Glavin added.

"It seems to me they saw something that worked," Glavin said.

So far in 2014, many Republican-leaning committees have cashed in on the trend more successfully than their Democratic-leaning counterparts. Seven of the 10 largest committees by money raised lean Republican.

"The edge in this would go to Republicans," said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign.

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The Boehner for Speaker Committee alone has raked in nearly $34 million, more than three times what the next most successful committee has raised. Funds have flooded these committees because they allow one sum of money—now no longer subject to aggregate limits—to stream to many different candidates or interest groups, Nyhart said.

Top 2014 Joint Fundraising Committees 141030

Committee Party Total Raised
Boehner for Speaker CmteR"$33,704,820"
Rubio Victory CmteR"$10,897,939"
Ted Cruz Victory CmteR"$5,300,682"
McConnell Victory KentuckyR"$4,773,145"
Cantor Victory FundR"$4,550,174"
House Senate Victory FundD"$3,953,897"
McCarthy Victory Fund 2014R"$3,753,969"
Obama Victory FundD"$3,384,867"
Booker Senate VictoryD"$2,799,206"
Targeted State VictoryR"$2,668,650"

For instance, the Boehner for Speaker Committee has divvied its donations among House Speaker John Boehner, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican Party of Ohio, among other groups. The method's convenience for donors, interest groups and candidates should only make its influence grow moving forward.

Glavin noted that the full effects from changes to campaign finance law often take more than one election cycle to emerge. If the 2014 cycle is an indicator, the 2016 cycle should unleash a new tide of JFC influence, the Center for Responsive Politics' Bryner said.

"We could see the money doubled in 2016 from 2012," Bryner said.

But with increased popularity, JFCs, like most other forms of political contributions, bring corruption concerns, Nyhart said. In the McCutcheon opinion, the court reasoned that aggregate limits did little to stem "quid pro quo" corruption, or the direct exchange of money for political favors.

Fundamentally, the court said, restrictions on political expression should only limit a direct corrupting influence. But at a six-digit output, limiting the influence of money may prove difficult, Nyhart said.

"You don't ask someone for $100,000 without expecting something back," he said.