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State campaign contributions set to double

At the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, Massachusetts politicians can celebrate something besides 2015: their new ability to raise twice as much campaign money from individual donors.

Beginning in the new year, candidates for all municipal, county, and state elected offices — including city council, mayor, the Legislature, and statewide offices such as governor — can raise $1,000 per year from individuals, double the current limit of $500.

The change, part of a multifaceted campaign finance package signed into law this summer, is certain to be a big boon to political pocketbooks. Beyond that, there is dispute about what the increase might mean.

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Some specialists believe the increase will simply make campaigns more expensive. Others think it might allow politicians to raise the money they need in less time, and spend their newly free hours with regular voters, building support.

And while the increase could help incumbents, a handful of operatives and analysts say the higher limits could give a boost to challengers looking to take them out. The contribution increase, they say, could allow upstart candidates to raise enough money to mount a viable challenge in cases where they could not at $500 a pop.

Candidacies for any office, from state representative to governor, tend to require a certain minimum amount of money to pay for the basics of a modern campaign. That includes everything from crafting a website to contacting voters — often by US mail in smaller races and through TV ads in larger ones. The new limit could make it easier for some candidates to meet that minimum.

“For people who have lots of connections to upper-middle class donors, the hurdle for running a competitive race gets lower,” said Avi Green, a specialist in elections and voting who works with the Scholars Strategy Network, a nationwide association of professors and researchers.

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“If you have access to people who can make larger donations,” challengers can raise the amount of money they need to run a viable campaign in half the time, he said.

While every district is different, a challenger hoping to oust a state senator needs to raise somewhere in the vicinity of $100,000 to run a real campaign, operatives of both parties said. Theoretically under the new limits, a challenger could do that with 50 wealthy supporters who each cut a $1,000 check in both years of a two-year election cycle.

But, of course, incumbents will be able to raise twice as much as well. And other analysts are certain that the new limits will further entrench them in a state where elected officials are notoriously difficult to beat.

Many operatives and analysts said current elected officials mulling a bid for higher office, such as governor, down the line, may be able to embrace their ambitions sooner, instead of working for many years, $500 donation by $500 donation, to squirrel away the massive savings needed for a big run.

“It may bring back the ability for people who aren’t independently wealthy to think about running for statewide office who haven’t had 10, 12 years in another office spending time building their campaign war chest,” longtime Democratic consultant Dan Cence said. “This may close the gap between [wealthy] self-funders and those who need to raise the money.”

The current individual yearly donation limit was put into place 20 years ago, when the Legislature moved it down from $1,000 to $500 under pressure from good government groups.

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The limit now goes back up to $1,000, as part of the 2014 law that includes provisions strengthening disclosure of donors to super PACs, groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, and labor unions.

The change in the individual donation limit won’t apply to federal candidates, those running for the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. Candidates for those offices in every state have the same fund-raising limits, which are adjusted every two-year election cycle for inflation.

For the 2013-14 election cycle, individuals were limited to giving $2,600 per candidate per federal election — $5,200 counting the primary and general elections.

And while doubling the donation limit is significant for nonfederal races in Massachusetts, analysts said the $1,000 limit is not very high in the sweep of 49 other states.

“Compared to other states, ultimately this is a small-potatoes change,” Green said. “Most states have higher limits.”

In Maryland, for instance, the individual limit is $4,000 per candidate per election cycle. In Idaho, it’s $5,000 per election for statewide offices. And a dozen states have no individual contribution limit, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Specialists are split on what Massachusetts’ new limit might mean for how pols spend their time.

“It’s a small lift, but it’s a lift, and it will allow candidates more time meeting voters than dialing for dollars,” said Paul D. Craney, executive director of Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a nonprofit which advocates for conservative economic and good government policies.

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The $500 limit “required candidates to spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone raising money or in private fund-raisers,” said Stephen Crawford, a longtime Massachusetts Democratic strategist. The higher ceiling “will allow them to spend more time with voters, energizing a grass-roots campaign.”

But Doug Rubin, who served as a top adviser to the gubernatorial campaigns of Deval Patrick and Attorney General Martha Coakley, said he did not expect the limits to give candidates extra time to spend schmoozing with voters. Just as water fills the space of its vessel, political money will expand to the new limits, he predicted.

“At the end of the day,” Rubin said, “people will raise more money and campaigns will be more expensive.”


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.