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Blowing Up Campaign-Finance Limits Made Shaun McCutcheon a GOP Hero. Then He Set His Sights on Paris Hilton.

Inside the marvelous life of a first amendment celebrity.
Blowing Up Campaign-Finance Limits Made Shaun McCutcheon a GOP Hero. Then He Set His Sights on Paris Hilton.
McCutcheon’s résumé—he owns an electrical-engineering firm near Birmingham, Alabama—and his folksy charm cut the perfect plaintiff’s profile for the money-in-politics lawsuit that GOP lawyers in Washington wanted to take all the way to the Supreme Court. Photograph by Susan Walsh/AP Photo.

By the time Shaun McCutcheon arrives at the main event, all the good seats are taken. It’s day two of the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—the annual pilgrimage that right-wing die-hards make to Washington each winter—and 51,000 square feet of ballroom are bustling with would-be presidential candidates and conservative activists: old men in tricornered hats, soldiers in uniform, and women in big government sucks buttons. McCutcheon takes the only empty chair he can find, way in the back behind a college-age woman texting a picture of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

While Jindal and, before him, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker hammer Democrats (on terrorism, on health care, on education), McCutcheon listens quietly. When Sarah Palin marches to the podium, however, he lets loose. “Here we go!” he says, rising to his feet, bursting into laughter and applause. “Celebrity-style politics!”

It’s McCutcheon’s fifth or sixth Palin sighting, but there’s something about her today that captivates him.

“Are those Louboutin shoes?” he asks me.

I haven’t the slightest idea.

“Look at those shoes—are those Louboutins?” he repeats 20 minutes later as the speech wraps. “That’d be a good question, wouldn’t it be? They’re four-inch heels.”

Five years ago, McCutcheon was just another American success story, running his own engineering firm near Birmingham, Alabama, and leading a fairly anonymous life, having never attended an event like this. He had, however, begun writing checks to benefit Republican candidates across the country. Before long, his ambitions for a more conservative America collided with the complex world of campaign finance, including the Watergate-era law limiting how much political money an individual can donate. The law was one of the few limits still standing after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which scrapped decades-old restrictions on corporate spending in elections. McCutcheon drew the attention of some ambitious Washington lawyers who were looking for a case that could get the limits on individual contributions tossed, too.

The affable engineer from Alabama turned out to be the perfect plaintiff. McCutcheon v. FEC wound its way to the Supreme Court, and last April the court sided with him, declaring that the limits were unconstitutional restrictions on free speech. In the insular world of campaign finance, the decision hit like a bombshell and turned McCutcheon into a conservative mascot.

He travels the country telling his story at law schools and has been on television programs all over Washington, including Meet the Press. He won the Guardian of Free Speech award at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. Politico listed him among its top 50 “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter in this age of gridlock and dysfunction.” (He’s number 32, three slots ahead of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.)

And, even more exciting, McCutcheon’s historic victory has gotten him invited to a whole lot of parties. When we hung out at CPAC, he whipped out his phone to show me the highlights of his time on the grip-and-grin circuit. It was one long scroll of McCutcheon beaming next to various GOP superstars:

“Chris Christie—I met him.

“Met [Donald] Trump. Twice. No, three times.

“Marco Rubio—I had dinner with him.”

And of course, Sarah Palin.

When she finishes her speech, McCutcheon and I shuffle toward the stage with a stream of other gawkers vying for a photograph of the onetime VP contender. He’s still fixated on her shoes. And the closer he gets, the more certain he becomes. “I think they are Louboutins,” he says again.

“They dang sure looked like Louboutins,” he tells me on the way out.

This is the story of how a guy from Alabama and the political-industrial complex of DC found each other at just the right time and everybody came away a winner. The consultants got paid, the conservative movement got more campaign cash, and McCutcheon secured himself a place in history (and had the time of his life).

Upstairs in his hotel suite, McCutcheon pinpoints the facet of his personality that he says made the whole adventure possible. “I’ve always had this curiosity: Why was that bridge built? Why is it cold outside? Why does Sarah Palin wear Louboutin?”

• • •

McCutcheon’s Washington story began only four years ago, in 2011, the first time he came to town for CPAC. Though he’d never been active in politics before, he had begun to see Uncle Sam’s expansion into the private sector—bank bailouts, Obamacare—as an existential threat to Main Street America, and he started writing checks, often in patriotic increments of $1,776, to conservative Republican candidates.

As a bachelor and a wealthy CEO (he’s the majority owner of his company, Coalmont), McCutcheon had money to spend. The CPAC confab, he figured, could teach him a thing or two about how his checkbook could have an even bigger impact. “When I first started out,” he says, “I couldn’t hardly say the word ‘politics.’ ”

McCutcheon was interested in setting up his own super-PAC, but he wasn’t impressed with the election lawyers he met down in Alabama. At the annual Reaganpalooza party, he hit it off with Dan Backer, a campaign-finance attorney whose Washington law firm has become something of a factory for the creation of Tea Party PACs. McCutcheon liked that Backer was a hardcore conservative himself. Before long, Backer helped McCutcheon set up his own PAC.

At the same time, McCutcheon continued sending checks to the Alabama Republican Party—so much money that state GOP leaders held a meeting where they warned him and other backers to keep their spending below the Federal Election Commission’s “aggregate limit.” McCutcheon remembers thinking, “What the heck is an aggregate limit?”

As his new friend Dan Backer would explain, Congress had passed legislation in 1974 that restricted the flow of cash into politics through a dual set of spending caps. As of 2013, so-called base limits barred individual donors from giving more than $2,600 to a single candidate per election and more than $32,400 to a national party committee in a calendar year. To prevent wealthy patrons from circumventing these limits, Congress also placed “aggregate limits” on the total money you could give per two-year election cycle; for candidates, it was $46,800. For PACs and parties, it was $74,600.

The dual set of caps meant donors like McCutcheon could send $2,600 apiece to 18 candidates—but a check of any amount to a 19th candidate was illegal.

After Citizens United knocked down a pillar of campaign-finance reform, GOP activists began to think about what other sweeping changes might be possible in the conservative John Roberts era. Backer was among those who zeroed in on the aggregate limits. Although the Supreme Court had upheld them in a 1976 legal challenge, he considered them redundant with the base limits: “It’s kind of like double-bagging it.” He and some colleagues had begun drafting arguments for a new challenge. But they needed the right person to carry the case—a compelling human story, they believed, was as essential as mastering the legal minutiae was. “It’s always about finding a plaintiff who’s sympathetic,” Backer says, “and who you can relate to.” For example, a folksy, self-made type who wasn’t part of the chummy permanent political-donor class.

In late 2011, Backer asked McCutcheon if he’d be interested in trying to prove that the limit on contributions to candidates violated his right to free speech. “He told me that it would make me ‘First Amendment famous,’ ” McCutcheon wrote in his 2014 e-book, Outsider Inside the Supreme Court. McCutcheon hesitated. Backer said the gambit would cost up to $250,000 just to get started. “I told him that I didn’t like lawsuits, and I didn’t like lawyers (at the time). And I didn’t know why I would want to sue the Federal Election Com-mission,” McCutcheon wrote. “But Dan was persistent.” A few weeks later, Backer offered to drop the bulk of the fees. McCutcheon signed on. “I didn’t have a wife telling me not to,” he says.

The Republican National Committee, which had been plotting its own assault on aggregate limits, wanted in on McCutcheon, too. “As a plaintiff, he struck us as someone who would be hard for the self-styled reformers to attack,” RNC chief counsel John Phillippe said in McCutcheon’s e-book. “They have always tried to caricature Wall Street and Washington donors, but Shaun did not readily fit into their playbook.”

All the same, government watchdogs were appalled when he won, suggesting the case might hasten the end of all political-money restrictions while lambasting McCutcheon as the down-home Trojan horse for the Charles Kochs and George Soroses of the world, billionaires looking to control the democratic process.

McCutcheon—whom Politico crowned as “the new face of money in politics”—doesn’t appear especially worried about this criticism. He’s still writing political checks, and his PAC launched an effort to oppose Jeb Bush’s possible White House run. But spend any time with McCutcheon and it becomes clear that small-government principles aren’t the only things that excite him about life as a GOP activist. “I like the party side of the Party,” he says. “And nobody has better parties than the Republicans: the best food, the best people, the best jewelry.”

• • •

After Palin’s speech at CPAC—the GOP’s biggest annual bash—McCutcheon and I head to a dinner cohosted by his attorney at Rosa Mexicano, an upscale Mexican restaurant chain. “I go to dinners like this all the time,” he says. “It’s totally awesome.”

McCutcheon has been to all the top restaurants in Washington. (The Palm is a favorite.) At one memorable outing to a “fancy Chinese restaurant,” a group of conservative activists mistook him for a lawyer. “Why would you be an attorney when you can be a plaintiff?” McCutcheon responded, to peels of laughter.

Tonight’s dinner, it turns out, is off-limits to the press. So I return at 9 pm for a cocktail reception co-funded by McCutcheon’s PAC. At the entrance, a banner reading MCCUTCHEON’S SCOTCH & CIGARS welcomes guests to the event. “Hey, let’s get a picture by that sign,” McCutcheon tells the attractive conservative fundraiser he’s talking to, and they pose for a series of shots: one serious, another crazy, one photo-bombed.

But even his buddies in DC Republican circles know there’s one person out there who has them beat when it comes to capturing McCutcheon’s attention. (And it’s not Sarah Palin.) It came up when I chatted with that same fundraiser, a friend of McCutcheon’s for several years. “So I suppose he’s told you about Paris Hilton?” she asked me.

I had certainly seen the pictures. They’re all over his Instagram account. There was the shot of McCutcheon with his arm around Hilton in Beverly Hills, the one of her kissing him on the cheek in Atlantic City, the one of him smiling at her while wearing an I PARTIED WITH PARIS HILTON T-shirt and matching hat—so many that if you didn’t know him, you might think they were a couple.

They’re not. “I don’t think I’m famous enough,” he assures me.

At 48, McCutcheon isn’t the hard-bodied supermodel you’d expect Paris Hilton to be kissing. They do have a relationship, though—albeit a peculiar one. And it was his Supreme Court challenge that brought them together.

McCutcheon was a fan of Fox’s The Simple Life, the reality show in which Hilton and her trust-fund buddy, Nicole Richie, tackled blue-collar jobs in rural America. “She would get fired from three jobs in a day,” McCutcheon says. “I just thought that was the funniest thing.” Then last year, he was in Washington for meetings about his case and spotted a flyer: Hilton was going to be deejaying at Echostage in Northeast DC. McCutcheon snagged a table in the VIP section.

Guess who popped by once she finished the gig.

Had this been a different city, McCutcheon says, he “probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to go up and meet her.” But by then, Washington felt like a second home, and that gave him the courage to say hello. Because there’s no big-government regulator limiting pay-to-play with celebrities, McCutcheon has traveled to at least six Hilton events—last summer he flew to Ibiza, Spain, to see her—and he always gets a chance to chat with her when she swings by the VIP section.

The good ol’ boy from Birmingham and the hotel heiress don’t have much in common. He never brings up politics (and certainly not campaign-finance reform) with her. Instead, McCutcheon tries to keep their conversations focused on the one thing they both enjoy.

“Where’s the next party?” he’ll say.

After spending the past year as a VIP tourist in the political and entertainment industries, McCutcheon now sees all kinds of commonalities between lawmakers and celebrities: “The job description is very similar—they spend their time organizing and then training for media and being in front of media and traveling around.” Along the way, he’s learned to use his Washington skills for even more face time with his favorite socialite. “Just like candidates have a campaign, most celebrities have charities,” he explains. “So if you contribute to the charity, you can meet them.” (Hilton’s publicist says “she is delighted and thankful for his contributions and support of her charitable initiatives.”)

Last fall, McCutcheon spent 30 minutes a day for a whole week glued to his computer, repeatedly upping his bid on the charity auction website BidKind. After several anxious hours on the final day, he was thrilled to learn he’d won a night of partying with Hilton in Miami in exchange for a $1,500 donation to the Best Friends Animal Society, a cause she supports. “I don’t know how I did it,” McCutcheon says. “The same way I won the Supreme Court case, I guess.”

• • •

As their Supreme Court date approached in October 2013, fissures opened inside Team McCutcheon. The RNC, for one thing, didn’t want its plaintiff talking to reporters. McCutcheon hated being ordered around by the Beltway establishment, and he saw no reason to keep his mouth shut. “It’s a case about free speech!” he says. Moreover, the media had made him out to be a greedy industrialist using his endless resources to hijack elections, a caricature he wanted to correct.

McCutcheon chose to dismiss the RNC’s directives and hire Levick, a Washington public-relations firm, so he could polish his media skills and on-camera presence. The firm helps him write speeches, arranges party invitations, and coordinates his interviews with national reporters. It was all part of its broader strategy, according to McCutcheon, to repair his image and rebrand him “from the heartless billionaire to the millionaire next door.”

McCutcheon hired a PR firm to transform his image from “heartless billionaire” to “the millionaire next door” and to help him prep for media spots. (L-R) Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen and Shaun McCutcheon, Plaintiff in McCutcheon v. FEC on Meet the Press with host David Gregory days after his high-court victory. Photograph by Kris Connor/NBC/Getty

The investment paid off. McCutcheon is charming and funny, with a refreshing regular-guy honesty rare in Washington. After he made himself more available to the media, the tone of his coverage shifted. He was presented less as a billionaire bogeyman than as a wealthy underdog you could root for. USA Today gave him top billing in a story called everyday heroes etched in supreme court history. The experience changed McCutcheon, too. He doesn’t get nervous speaking to the press anymore. “It’s like socializing,” he says, “or going to a party with Paris Hilton.”

But eventually, the tension with the RNC grew into an intractable dispute over how to argue McCutcheon v. FEC. Jim Bopp, the veteran campaign-finance attorney who was working for the RNC, wanted to pursue a nuanced argument about the contours of election laws. But Backer and McCutcheon saw the matter as a straightforward case about free speech. The high court has established that the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to voice their opinions through political donations; aggregate spending limits unnecessarily limited expression, Backer and McCutcheon believed, and were therefore unconstitutional. McCutcheon told the RNC that he didn’t want Bopp to present his case. In the end, Backer and Bopp submitted separate briefs, and the RNC had other lawyers make the oral arguments.

Approaching the court that day, McCutcheon felt intimidated. Once inside, though, he was surprised by its intimacy. “What I couldn’t believe is how close you really were to the justices,” he says. Elena Kagan was 20 feet away. He was also blown away by the high-level humor. He remembers how Antonin Scalia told the most jokes but Kagan delivered the day’s most memorable punchline. It was about the court’s last major campaign-finance decision, when she was there as an attorney on the losing side. “She joked and said, ‘Well, instead of doing McCutcheon, I suppose we could go back and review Citizens United.’ I mean, everybody just busted out laughing at that. That was the funniest joke there was.”

On his way out of the building, McCutcheon passed the crowd of protesters that had gathered in the plaza. One waved an American flag fashioned from replica dollar bills. Others carried signs reading MCCUTCHEON IS CORRUPTION.

Six months later, on April 2, 2014, McCutcheon was on a job at a Tennessee steel mill when he took a break to check his messages and saw several missed calls from Washington. The justices’ decision was in: 5-4, for McCutcheon.

“The Supreme Court is awesome,” he says. “They took a redneck from Alabama and put him on the front page of every newspaper in the United States.”

There was one sour note. Even the historic victory couldn’t assuage the hurt feelings between McCutcheon and the RNC’s Jim Bopp. Says McCutcheon: “He just don’t like me, so why would I want to hang out with him? I’d rather go to a Paris Hilton party, where I can have fun.”

Says Bopp: “I have absolutely no opinion of him personally.”

• • •

The Scotch & Cigars event McCutcheon hosted at CPAC went later than expected, due to the arrival of some military guys who’d heard about the free whiskey (“They were crazy!”) as well as a few advisers to Ted Cruz. McCutcheon isn’t a big drinker—for him, “partying” means meeting new people, cracking jokes, and chitchatting about who’s up and who’s down. Still, the next day was rough.

When I show up at his suite, McCutcheon says he took the morning easy, listening to speeches and playing the carnival games that right-wing groups had set up along the main hallway. He registered to win a new TV from one organization and an AR-15 rifle from another and spun the Price Is Right-style “prize wheel” that a third group was sponsoring. He won a pair of plastic sunglasses.

He also tells me about bumping into an associate of Donald Trump’s, who relayed that the billionaire developer was seriously considering a 2016 White House bid. Trump has been “seriously considering” public office for a quarter century now, but McCutcheon didn’t care. He was looking to get involved in a campaign, and Trump, America’s most famous would-be-politician celebrity, felt like a nice fit: “If [Trump] runs, I’m going to jump on that train until it derails—because it’s going to be fun! We’ll go off the tracks at 110 miles per hour!”

McCutcheon is always up for a ride—and Washington remains happy to sell him VIP tickets. Looking at his PAC’s books, though, it’s less clear whether he’s seen as the life of the party or as the easy mark who’ll spring for drinks in the club car. In the 2012 election cycle, he personally financed $270,000 of the group’s $353,000 haul. But according to the Center for Responsive Politics, only 38 percent of the cash went to directly help nine congressional candidates, most of them no-names. The remainder was spent on events, a speakers’ bureau, and other items, as well as a slew of political consultants, including Dan Backer’s law firm.

A month before CPAC, Politico ran an exposé on PACs that some believe have been created primarily to gin up fees for the operatives who run them. The story, headlined the rise of “scam pacs,” singled out Backer and McCutcheon’s PAC as a prime example. Backer admits that the committee’s 2012 spending was “somewhat inefficient” but insists that consultants are an essential, if expensive, part of an effective PAC, and he says their value isn’t fairly reflected in the antiquated way the government collects data. He also notes that McCutcheon provided only $14,000 of the PAC’s $241,000 total receipts for the 2014 election cycle, as the organization moved to a small-donor model.

McCutcheon defended Backer to Politico: “It’s up to donors like me to decide if we want to buy, and, in my case, I did. I wanted to buy a lot.” At the same time, he added: “If anybody was getting scammed, it would be me.”

Neither of the men seemed bothered by the bad press. Backer says he was “bummed out” there wasn’t a picture of him in the piece. When McCutcheon and I talk about it at CPAC, he seems happy to be mentioned. “Did you see that story?” he says, laughing. “That was me and Dan!”

• • •

Around 5 pm, McCutcheon and I hit a reception sponsored by the Conservative Book Club and he spots Dana Loesch, a talk-show host from St. Louis who’s promoting her latest book, Hands Off My Gun. “I want to get a picture with Dana, one of the better-looking conservatives,” he says. A press aide paid by Backer’s law firm, on hand all day to accompany McCutcheon, gets the shot.

“Hey, did you text me that picture yet?” McCutcheon asks on his way out.

“Okay, I’ll do it now,” the aide says.

“Did it come out good?”

“Yeah, I got a couple of you guys talking, too.”

“Cool.”

Around 9, we arrive at the evening’s final event: a party thrown by James O’Keefe, the conservative provocateur who’s made his name with in-costume, hidden-camera escapades inside liberal groups and causes like ACORN. McCutcheon and O’Keefe met at a dinner a couple of years back and became friends. Last year, on the night of the midterms, they rented a limo and cruised around Washington, shuttling from one gleeful victory party to another as the GOP regained control of the Senate.

Tonight, a young man dressed as Osama bin Laden and a big-chested woman in a skimpy police outfit wander by as a line forms to exchange drink tickets at the bar. “This is a wild party,” McCutcheon says. Once he starts mingling, it doesn’t take long for him to spot the most enticing thing in the room.

“They got a red carpet?” he asks. “I’ll have to get my picture.”

This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

This article has been updated from the previous version.

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Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.