Hundreds of thousands of dollars are pouring into a race for a state Senate seat representing Platte and Buchanan counties, roiling an already contentious Republican primary and fueling accusations of corruption and cronyism.
The two-way GOP primary has featured withering attacks from both sides and at one point even included a third candidate who was a Democrat widely viewed to have gotten in the race to play spoiler.
And nearly two years after voters imposed campaign contribution limits on political candidates, the race is another clear demonstration of the rising influence in Missouri of outside spending groups that aren’t bound by those contribution restrictions.
On one side of the primary is Tony Luetkemeyer, a lawyer from Parkville and first-time candidate for public office.
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On the other is Harry Roberts, an insurance salesman from St. Joseph who is Buchanan County’s presiding commissioner.
The two are facing off for the GOP nomination in a district represented for the last eight years by Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, who will be forced from office in January because of term limits.
In November, the winner will take on Kansas City Democrat Martin Rucker, who is unopposed in his primary.
Luetkemeyer says he’s running as a political outsider, vowing to take on “politics as usual” in the Missouri Statehouse and focus on job creation and public safety if elected. He has raised around $470,000 since entering the campaign last year and has $78,000 cash on hand.
Roberts points to his record in county government, saying it demonstrates that he’s a conservative who will ensure “Jefferson City functions more like northwest Missouri and less like Washington, D.C.” He has raised $317,000 and has $44,000 cash on hand.
But with voters set to head to the polls Aug. 7, the real money in the race is coming from a political action committee called Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.
It’s been spending big over the last month to tip the scales in Luetkemeyer’s favor.
Since forming in late June, Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund has raised $750,000, more than half of which came from a nonprofit that isn’t required to disclose its donors — so-called dark money. It so far has spent roughly $250,000 boosting Luetkemeyer and attacking both Roberts and Schaaf, who endorsed Roberts in the primary.
Almost all of the money that the PAC spent went to companies owned by GOP consultant Jeff Roe.
Roe’s consulting firm is also working directly for Luetkemeyer’s campaign.
Schaaf is crying foul, accusing Luetkemeyer and Roe of coordinating PAC attacks, an allegation of illegal behavior both men vehemently deny.
“How can there not be coordination?” Schaaf tweeted this week. “Both Luetkemeyer’s campaign and the PAC sending out all the mailers for him use Jeff Roe’s Axiom Strategies.”
Schaaf has filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
The outside spending should be a warning to voters, Roberts said.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of possible corruption coming in from outside this district,” he said.
Roe said when his companies are employed by both a PAC and a candidate in a particular race, “we go to great lengths to ensure proper firewalls are in place to prevent any coordination.”
“It’s important to know I have only met Tony once, last year,” Roe said, “and I am not involved with his campaign.”
Luetkemeyer said the claims of coordination are false, “the type of thing a desperate, losing campaign talks about.”
How an independent group spends its money is “outside my control,” Luetkemeyer said. Besides, he said, when he talks to voters, “none of them care about the money being spent in this election.”
Roberts wants to focus on campaign contributions, Luetkemeyer said, because his record includes voting to raise taxes, increase the county’s budget and give local elected officials a pay hike.
“My opponent has time and time again shown that he is interested in helping a small group of political elite,” he said. “He’s not a conservative, and I think if he’s elected, we’ll get more of the same.”
Roberts says Luetkemeyer is purposefully distorting his record.
For example, Roberts says, he voted to place a sales tax hike on the ballot in 2016 to pay for a portion of long overdue Missouri River levee repairs. Nearly 80 percent of Buchanan County voters approved the tax hike to help prevent flooding at the Missouri Air National Guard.
“Lies and propaganda are being spread by my opponent,” Roberts said.
For his part, Roberts hasn’t refrained from taking shots of his own.
A TV ad his campaign aired recently says “Big city lawyer Tony Luetkemeyer supports legalizing drugs.” The accusation is based on a 15-year-old quote about marijuana decriminalization Luetkemeyer gave a student newspaper when he was a freshman at the University of Missouri.
Luetkemeyer called the ad “gutter politics.”
And Roberts also has a political action committee throwing its support behind him as well.
On Tuesday, a group called CL PAC disclosed it was spending $25,000 on TV ads in the race. While its ethics reports didn’t include the required disclosure of which candidate the money was designed to support or oppose, the PAC later confirmed it was in support of Roberts.
CL PAC is run by Jim Lembke, a former GOP state senator from St. Louis County who serves as Schaaf’s legislative chief of staff.
Lembke said the PAC, which he formed in 2017, is “active in races where we believe there’s a candidate that has constitutional conservative values.”
He also said there has been no coordination between his PAC and the Roberts campaign.
“I’m fire-walled off,” he said. “I can’t talk to anybody who is on their campaign.”
This year the PAC has received $200,000 in contributions from St. Louis businessman David Steward. Last week it got a $27,500 check from a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called American Federation for Children.
The nonprofit, founded by the billionaire family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, calls itself “the nation’s leading school choice organization.”
Strangely, on the same day it contributed $27,500 to CL PAC, American Federation for Children also donated the same amount to the pro-Luetkemeyer Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.
Despite CL PAC’s last minute spending, the 300-pound gorilla in the race is Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.
Unlike candidates, PACs are not bound by campaign contribution limits that voters implemented in 2016.
Of the $750,000 raised by Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund since late June, $450,000 came from a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called U.S. Term Limits Inc.
Roberts says he was contacted by the group to sign its pledge to support term limits for elected officials, and he did. Now, he wonders why it is spending so heavily to defeat him in a state Senate primary. And he wonders where the group’s money is coming from.
A spokesman for U.S. Term Limits, which isn’t required to disclose its donors, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Roberts is also quick to note that Luetkemeyer and the money behind his candidacy have numerous connections to former Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican who resigned from office June 1 under a deluge of scandals and accusations of criminal misconduct.
Among the scandals that led to Greitens’ resignation after only 17 months in office were allegations that he illegally used a nonprofit to launder campaign donations to hide the identity of donors.
Luetkemeyer’s wife, Lucinda, was Greitens’ general counsel, the second-ranking position in the governor’s office. And Roe’s companies ran Greitens’ public relations and lobbying campaign during the months he worked to stave off impeachment.
Among those putting money into the race is St. Joseph businessman Stan Herzog. He gave Greitens $650,000 during the 2016 campaign and spent $90,000 in 2017 on the former governor’s travel. He also purchased the building in Jefferson City that housed Greitens’ dark money nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc.
Earlier this month, Herzog donated $99,978 to a group called Missouri Alliance for Freedom-Grace River PAC and $100,000 to American Democracy Alliance-Ridgely PAC.
Both PACs were heavily involved in the state Senate campaign in Jackson County last year, and Missouri Alliance for Freedom sued Schaaf unsuccessfully, claiming he was violating the state’s open records laws.
Both PACs also have ties to the Kansas City law firm of Missouri Republican Party Chairman Todd Graves — a staunch Greitens ally. Lucinda Luetkemeyer worked at Graves’ firm before joining Greitens’ administration.
Last week, Missouri Alliance for Freedom donated $100,000 to the Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund. Around the same time, American Democracy Alliance donated $50,000.
Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund has also gotten $75,000 from Joplin businessman David Humphreys, who gave Greitens $2 million in 2016 but earlier this year broke with the governor and called for him to resign.
Luetkemeyer said trying to tie him to the former governor is a cheap stunt. He said he personally had no relationship with the former governor other than the fact that his wife was his general counsel.
“My campaign is focused on the future,” Luetkemeyer said, “not the past.”