Last week's Supreme Court decision overturning individual limits on campaign giving will have some of its biggest impacts in California, where dozens of political high-rollers are now gearing up to expand their power over the process -- or fretting that they've lost one of their best excuses not to give more.

The Golden State is home to about 14 percent of the country's most-generous donors who "maxed out" for 2012's elections under federal limits on total campaign giving -- restrictions that were wiped out by the court. About 7 percent of the country's "maxed out" donors live in the Bay Area, according to this newspaper's analysis of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Charles T. Munger Jr., who spent millions to influence the support for Proposition 20; November 12, 2010. (LiPo Ching/Mercury News)
Charles T. Munger Jr., who spent millions to influence the support for Proposition 20; November 12, 2010. (LiPo Ching/Mercury News) (LiPo Ching)

Now they're free to shower much more money on federal candidates, parties and committees, raising concerns of whether Wednesday's ruling in the McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission case has cemented the status of a new class of American oligarchs. Only the state of New York had more donors who maxed out.

The California donors are mostly male and mostly white, and though the data is spotty, their money seems to be split about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, though it skews more Democratic in the Bay Area. Donors here include well-known figures such as businessman and investor Charles Schwab of San Francisco, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla of Portola Valley, and former San Francisco Giants managing partner Peter Magowan. Lesser-known names include Berkeley computer science professor Scott Shenker and Mountain View retiree Marie-Therese Tibbs.


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"People will decide what level of political engagements they want to do: How many precincts they want to walk, or how many telephone calls they want to make -- or how many checks they want to write," said Charles Munger Jr. of Palo Alto, a prolific contributor to the Republican Party and various ballot measures. "My cumulative donations were bumping up against the federal limit; there were things I wished to accomplish in federal politics that I couldn't do."

Munger said that because California already had no aggregate limits, he had turned his attention and money to state issues after maxing out at the federal level. "But this will change some of the things I do because it will allow me to rebalance my political priorities with my actual preferences."

Federal law restricts an individual's contributions to a single candidate to $5,200 in one election cycle -- $2,600 in the primary and $2,600 in the general election -- and that's unchanged by Wednesday's ruling. But the Supreme Court wiped out aggregate limits that would have restricted a donor to giving a total of $48,600 to various federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and political action committees, for a total of $123,200 in the 2013-14 election cycle.

In 2011-2012, when the aggregate limit was $117,000, 644 individual donors across the nation maxed out, the data shows. Of those 644, 90 are Californians, including 45 from the greater Bay Area.

Theoretically, one person can now give $5,200 to each of the 535 members of Congress -- about $2.78 million -- though it's hard to imagine why anyone would do that. But there is no limit on how many PACs can exist, so there's practically no limit to how much influence a single donor can now wield through them.

"It starts to feel like a story that's so far removed not only from the average citizen but even the average citizen of the upper class," said Jessica Levinson, a money-in-politics expert at Loyola Law School.

"Now it essentially becomes the cost of business to give huge amounts of money," she said, adding only the richest will be able to keep up.

Some donors who made this rarefied list might want to change their telephone numbers.

"All of the six-figure donors I know were not popping Champagne corks over this," said Wade Randlett, an Obama fundraising "bundler" from San Francisco who is among those who maxed out in the 2012 elections.

These deep-pocketed donors until now could demur when more campaigns came begging for money by saying they already had hit their limit for the current election cycle. "Now it's like there's no rest for the weary," Randlett said.

But that money's influence is undeniable.

Randlett predicted the ruling's effect "depends on your objective." A partisan or ideological donor who wants to spend a lot to tip a big election's balance might tend toward independent expenditure groups that were never subject to aggregate limits, or "dark money" groups that can funnel unlimited contributions from anonymous donors -- people such as the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and George Soros.

"But if you're trying to get a specific tax bill fixed, you couldn't care how far left or right that person is -- you care if they're on the right committee," Randlett said. "You really don't care who helps you get there."

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, people like that now can spend alone or with others to give money not just to a few lawmakers, but to all who ever come in contact with a certain bill, he said, and that's "a potentially large and certainly negative effect on the process."

Munger welcomes new requests for his money, which he sees as a means of informing more voters.

"If you're engaged in politics a lot, and your primary problem is that too many people are coming to you for help ... that's a privileged position to be in," he said.

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.