A federal court ruling Tuesday afternoon could dramatically reshape how this June’s San Diego City Council races will be funded, potentially allowing unlimited donations to council candidates for the June 8 primary election.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted contribution limits on political parties to city races, the most recent ruling in a lawsuit filed by the local Republican Party and others against the city’s campaign finance rules.

The ruling deals a blow to rules designed to limit the impact of special interests on city elections. A former member of the city commission that to enforces those rules said the decision could eliminate all city caps on campaign contributions. And more immediately, the decision could be a boon in at least one City Council election.

The ruling appears to create a window in which parties can contribute unlimited amounts to their endorsed candidates. The city used to ban parties from contributing. In response to an earlier decision in the lawsuit, City Council has tried to enact a $1,000 limit on party donations. But that effort still is winding its way through the city’s approval process before it becomes law.

That makes the timing of Tuesday’s decision essential to its impact. Since the city’s $1,000 limit won’t take effect until after the election, now there are no rules.

It remains unclear how the decision will play out. The city could appeal the decision or try to speed up the enactment of the $1,000 limit. Neither San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office nor the city’s outside attorney immediately responded to requests for comment.

It is clear who benefits the most from the decision.

Businesswoman Lorie Zapf, the endorsed Republican candidate vying to replace termed-out District 6 City Councilwoman Donna Frye, will receive a $20,000 contribution from the Republican Party prior to the election, Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric said.

“That’s the first thing on the docket,” Krvaric said.

Zapf is locked in a five-way primary fight and has $27,000 less in cash on hand than the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, former state Assemblyman Howard Wayne. Also in the race are Frye’s chief of staff Steve Hadley, businessman Ryan Huckabone and paralegal Kim Tran. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the June vote, then the top two finishers will compete again in November.

Political observers widely see the District 6 race as the only one this election cycle that could change the 6-2 advantage Democrats currently hold on the City Council. District 6 includes the city’s Mission Valley, Clairemont, Kearny Mesa, Serra Mesa and Linda Vista neighborhoods.

Krvaric called the ruling a victory for First Amendment rights, and added that the Democratic Party would benefit equally.

But Jess Durfee, the local Democratic Party head, decried the decision, saying it turned the primaries into a “free-for-all.” Corporate interests, he said, now would have undue influence on campaigns through Republican Party donations.

“Once again they’ll use that to buy offices in San Diego,” Durfee said.

Durfee didn’t rule out the party making a contribution to Wayne’s campaign.

“We’ll see,” he said.

Tuesday’s ruling could go even further than unlimited party donations.

Former Ethics Commission Chairman Gil Cabrera said the decision effectively eliminates any of the city’s campaign contribution limits, which now are $500 per person per election. Donors could give unlimited amounts to political parties who could then spend on candidates, Cabrera said.

“In San Diego, essentially there won’t be any contribution limits through the June primary,” Cabrera said.

“At the least that has to raise the question as to the influence of large money donors on campaigns,” he added. “I don’t see how it can’t.”

But John Kern, a Republican political consultant, said it won’t be that big of a deal. The Republican Party’s decision to contribute to the District 6 race could make the election more partisan and prop up Zapf, he said, a candidate he believed hadn’t been able to garner her own support.

“I don’t think this is the end of an era,” Kern said. “I don’t think this is the beginning of an era. It may help Lorie Zapf get out of the primary.”

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

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