Supreme Court ruling gives McConnell some vindication

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose strident opposition to campaign finance reform legislation helped move the McCain-Feingold bill before the Supreme Court, praised Thursday's court ruling striking down a provision that benefits the opponents of wealthy political candidates.

Dubbed the "millionaire's amendment," the provision struck down Thursday was billed as a way to level the campaign-funding playing field. It didn't restrict how much money the wealthy candidate could spend. But by 5-4, the court ruled that Congress went too far when it loosened fundraising restraints for politicians facing millionaires who invest in their own campaigns.

"The Supreme Court has appropriately upheld the First Amendment and I applaud their decision," McConnell said Thursday.

The court's majority declared that the campaign-finance double standard violated First Amendment free-speech guarantees.

"The argument that a candidate's speech may be restricted in order to level electoral opportunity has ominous implications because it would permit Congress to arrogate the voters' authority to evaluate the strength of candidates competing for office," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

McConnell made similar arguments during his at times spirited pushback against the now presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. In 2002, McConnell went head to head with McCain during protracted battles over the Arizona senator's efforts to limit campaign financing. At the time, McConnell said McCain's efforts to limit campaign spending would inhibit political free speech and could particularly hurt Republicans.

Ironically, Thursday's Supreme Court ruling gives McConnell's Democratic opponent, Bruce Lunsford, the leeway to fund a stronger campaign against the senator, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report.

"The ruling will allow Lunsford to spend as much money as he wants without any recourse from McConnell," Duffy said.

Lunsford, a wealthy Louisville businessman, has coffers capable of bankrolling his campaign. Though he initially wrote in filing papers to the FEC that he doesn't intend to spend his own money, Lunsford became the first Kentucky candidate ever to trigger the millionaire's amendment when he pumped more than $1 million of his own money into his bid for U.S. Senate.

During his unsuccessful 2003 and 2007 runs for governor, Lunsford pumped $14 million of his own money into the campaigns. Lunsford is an entrepreneur who owned nursing-home company Vencor and now has a movie production company.

"Today's ruling doesn't change a thing we're doing," said press secretary Allison Haley. "Bruce is personally committed to the race and we're building support from thousands of other folks who want change."

(Michael Doyle in Washington and Ryan Alessi in Lexington contributed to this report.)