I’m not sure many people realized just how influential the Lincoln Club of San Diego just became. Well, wait. I should rephrase. How potentially influential the club became.

Last month, federal Judge Irma Gonzalez suspended many of the city’s complicated campaign finance laws and I don’t think the magnitude of what has changed has set in.

Yes, some of the changes have little impact. For example, it will no longer be illegal for a candidate to spend his or her own money on their race more than one year before the election. That was an annoyance for a few wealthy candidates, and it will have some effect on our system but it’s not a huge deal.

Another minor change will make it possible for political parties to give directly to candidates. Until now, they couldn’t. This may seem like a big deal but it’s not.

First off the city has been given time to consider what the limits on these donations should be and it is considering a $1,000 limit on such donations. That’s miniscule compared to the powers local political parties already have. They already could raise and spend as much as they wanted on behalf of the candidates they supported. They merely had to designate that spending as “member communications.” In other words, they would direct mailers and calls and other services to people who are registered to vote with that party.

San Diego Republicans have mastered this — raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the party every election cycle. Although they can only spend the money communicating with members, they can coordinate directly with the candidates. This allows them to basically serve as a preferred candidate’s contractors for outreach to people in their party and the party can basically subsidize the cost of the consultants and thinkers who work for the candidate. Local Democrats are also getting better at this.

Again, that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars. Being able to give $1,000 or even $10,000 directly to a candidate isn’t all that big of a deal. In fact, I bet the party actually prefers managing the money itself rather than having to give it.

You want a big deal? Check out what’s happened to the Lincoln Club.

Up until last month, if you wanted to support a candidate you could simply put up a billboard for them yourself. Spend as much as you want. It’s free speech, have a blast. If you wanted to get together with some friends and each, say, give $20,000 to the effort, no problem. Again, go nuts. But you had to disclose, on the billboard, who paid for it.

If you didn’t want it to say your name and wanted to communicate that your cause was more of a general popular one, you might want to put a committee’s name on it. For instance, you might want it to say something like “Paid for by the Committee that Loves San Diego” instead of your actual names. If so, the city limited you and your friends to donations of $500 each.

At $500 each, you need a lot — a lot — of friends to make something significant happen. Let’s say you would want to, like the firefighters in 2004, dump $100,000 into an ad campaign. You’d need 200 people to give $500 each. That might be possible but raising that much money would require a campaign of its own. On the other hand, the Lincoln Club has access to many who could give well more than $1,000 to an advertising blitz if they were motivated enough and the rules allowed.

This is what the Lincoln Club faced. It has an active membership of Republican supporters, many of whom have the means to spend a lot more than $500 each on a billboard. But they were limited to that and with a low limit like that, they couldn’t get together behind the Lincoln Club banner and do as much as their money might normally seem to allow.

That’s why they sued. A federal judge decided their suit had merit in light of this decision — enough merit to at least suspend the city’s rules for a bit.

And now, the members of the Lincoln Club of San Diego — and any other group of people — have the power to raise and spend as much as they’d like. And they can do it behind their organization’s banner.

Though it has been active for years in school board and City Council races the club now can deploy far more resources. Instead of just mailers, the group’s small membership can now raise more money and put out billboard and television campaigns. It can produce videos and mount websites.

Again, any group can do this. The Democrats, a few years ago, formed the Truman Club to rival its opponents on the right. It’s not achieved the same level of traction.

How about unions? Yes, they’re now also similarly freed. But they already could handle the restrictions well because of their vast membership numbers. Donations of $500 a piece aren’t so limiting to a group with thousands of members.

Also, as the elections approach, watch for a proliferation of other groups. The “Committee to do this or that.” Two people can each give $100,000 and put up an ad that says it’s from People Who Eat Shrimp and you’ll have to look up the documents to see how many people that really is.

Whether this change makes the Lincoln Club as powerful as it can be will depend on its leaders. Like the so-called strong mayor, getting tools doesn’t necessarily mean you use them as well. Some people with fewer tools use them better.


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