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Republican National Committee v. FEC (08-1953)


On March 26, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted the FEC’s Motion for Summary Judgment and denied the Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment in RNC v. FEC. The court concluded that the Plaintiff’s challenge to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s (BCRA) restrictions on political party fundraising conflict with the Supreme Court’s decision in McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003). The court concluded that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United v. FEC does not affect McConnell’s holding with respect to BCRA’s limits on contributions to political parties.


The Act’s soft money provisions prohibit national parties from soliciting, receiving or spending any nonfederal funds and require state, district and local party committees to fund certain "federal election activity" (FEA) either with federal funds or, in certain cases, with a combination of federal and Levin funds. 2 U.S.C. §§441i(a)(1) and 441i(b)(1). There are four types of FEA:

  • Voter registration activity during the 120 days before a regularly scheduled federal election;
  • Voter identification, get-out-the-vote (GOTV) and generic campaign activity conducted in connection with an election in which a federal candidate appears on the ballot;
  • A public communication that refers to a clearly identified federal candidate and that promotes, attacks, supports or opposes any federal candidate; and
  • Certain services provided by an employee of a state or local party committee in connection with a federal election. 2 U.S.C. §431(20), 11 CFR 100.24.


The Plaintiffs state that the Supreme Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 80 (1976), requires that the federal campaign finance laws limit only those First Amendment activities that are "unambiguously related to the campaign of a particular federal candidate." The Plaintiffs allege that they plan to use funds raised under state laws and other nonfederal funds for activities that they claim are not related to campaigns of particular federal candidates. These activities include the RNC’s raising and spending of nonfederal funds to pay for the present litigation and to support:

  • Republican candidates in New Jersey and Virginia’s 2009 elections, where no federal offices will appear on the ballots;
  • Redistricting efforts of various states’ Republican parties;
  • Grassroots lobbying efforts for federal legislation and issues important to the Republican Party’s platform; and
  • State candidates in various states, whether or not a federal candidate appears on the ballot.

In addition, the Chairman of the RNC alleges that he intends to solicit nonfederal funds on behalf of the RNC for the activities described above, and to solicit nonfederal funds for the California Republican Party. The California Republican Party and the Republican Party of San Diego County allege that they intend to use nonfederal funds to pay for public communications in support of or opposition to state ballot initiatives, and that those communications may promote, attack, support or oppose federal candidates.

The Plaintiffs complain that the soft money provisions attempt to regulate activities, like those they plan to undertake, that are not "unambiguously related to the campaign of a particular federal candidate." As such, they claim that the provisions, as applied to their planned activities, are overbroad and sweep into First Amendment activity without constitutional authority.

The Plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction against the FEC’s enforcement of 2 U.S.C. §441i, a judgment declaring the provision unconstitutional as applied to their activities and costs and attorneys fees.

On November 18, 2008, the court granted the Plaintiffs’ Application for Three-Judge Court.

District court decision on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment

In denying the Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment, the court first rejected their argument that it should apply a “strict scrutiny” level of analysis to their claims. The court referenced the Supreme Court’s decision in McConnell which held that the appropriate level of scrutiny for limitations on contributions to candidates and political parties is a “closely drawn” standard that validates regulations if they meet a sufficiently important governmental interest.

Next, the RNC asserted that 323(a) could not constitutionally be applied to activities that are not unambiguously related to the campaign of a particular federal candidate. It also argued that 323(a) violates the First Amendment to the extent that it applies to contributions that would be used for nonfederal elections, and that there was no viable theory of corruption to justify limits on contributions to political parties. It asserted that if it pledged not to sell preferential access to federal officeholders and candidates in exchange for soft-money contributions, it would eliminate McConnell’s concerns about the corrupting influences of soft-money contributions. The court rejected all of these arguments, stating that McConnell not only upheld BCRA’s ban on nonfederal contributions to national political parties, but also held that 323(a) is not overbroad simply because it subjects all funds raised and spent by national parties to Federal Election Campaign Act’s limits. Although the court found that the RNC’s as applied argument may have merit if the selling of access for soft-money contributions were eliminated, it pointed out that in upholding the 323(a) limits, the Supreme Court in McConnell also was concerned about the close relationship between federal officeholders and national parties. The McConnell Court felt that because they were inextricably intertwined, federal officeholders and candidates may value contributions to their national parties, and that those contributions have the same tendency to result (or appear to result) in quid pro quo corruption. Although the court acknowledged that the McConnell opinion is ambiguous as to whether the “unity of interests” rational was an independently sufficient standard to uphold the ban on soft-money contributions to national parties, it stated that it didn’t possess the authority to clarify or refine McConnell’s holding on this issue.

The California Republican Party and the Republican Party of San Diego County claimed that 323(b) unconstitutionally prohibited them from raising soft money contributions to participate in certain federal election activity that does not target, but may incidentally criticize or oppose, federal candidates. The court rejected this claim as already having been considered and rejected in McConnell. The court pointed out that whether 323(b) can be constitutionally applied to a particular state or local party activity depends on whether the activity would provide a direct benefit to a federal candidate, not on who the party’s primary target is. Since the party committees did not deny that the activities could benefit federal candidates, the court rejected their as-applied challenge.

Finally, the RNC chairman claimed that 323(a) is unconstitutional as applied to his efforts to solicit soft money contributions to the RNC, state parties and state candidates. In rejecting the chairman’s claim, the court stated that, although the chairman, in his individual capacity, may solicit soft-money donations on behalf of state and local party committees and candidates, McConnell upheld 323(a)’s prohibition against national party committees and their officers acting in their official capacities from soliciting or directing soft-money contributions. On April 2, 2010, the Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Source:   FEC RecordMay 2010; January 2009


Supreme Court (09-1287)

Court decisions:

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District Court (DC) (08-1953)

Court decisions:

Related documents: