Missouri voters likely thought they were shutting off the spigot of campaign cash into state politics in 2016 when they voted overwhelmingly to amend the state’s Constitution and cap contributions to political candidates.
In reality, the floodgates are still wide open.
While individual candidates can only collect contributions less than the voter-imposed $2,600 limit, independent political action committees face no such restrictions.
The result: Big-dollar donations are flowing into committees with innocuous-sounding names, often with no disclosure of where the money actually came from.
And that has largely shifted the balance of power in Missouri campaigns, critics contend, from candidates to shadowy outside spending groups.
“Regrettably, this is the new norm,” said James Harris, a longtime Republican political consultant in Missouri. “And the casualty is the political process is much less transparent.”
The situation isn’t necessarily new, said Chuck Hatfield, a Democratic attorney with expertise in state election law. It’s been playing out at the federal level for years, especially after a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.
“Missouri is just catching up with the rest of the country,” Hatfield said. “It’s a natural outgrowth of contribution limits.”
Take, for example, three GOP primary campaigns for seats in the Missouri Senate, where a PAC called Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund spent big to boost its preferred candidates.
Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund raised around $800,000 in the month leading up to the Aug. 2 primary, with more than half coming from a dark-money nonprofit that isn’t required to disclose its donors.
In the race for a Senate seat in Platte and Buchanan counties, Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund spent $490,000 over the campaign’s final month to assist the eventual winner, Tony Luetkemeyer.
Luetkemeyer and his opponent, Harry Roberts, combined to spend $432,000 during the same period.
A PAC called Missouri Federation for Children spent $120,000 boosting the candidacy of Cindy O’Laughlin, who emerged victorious from a four-way GOP primary for a state Senate seat in northeast Missouri.
Two-thirds of Missouri Federation for Children’s money came from Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.
Meanwhile, O’Laughlin came under attack by a PAC called Missouri’s Future, which was bankrolled by trial attorneys and spent $181,000 on the race.
Justin Brown won the GOP primary for a Senate seat based in Rolla with the help of $65,000 in spending from a PAC called Team Justin.
Team Justin received $50,000 from Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.
In all three races, the candidates and the PACs that supported them employed the political consulting firm of veteran GOP operative Jeff Roe.
If a candidate coordinates with an independent PAC, any spending would be an in-kind donation subject to contribution limits. If there is no coordination, PAC spending can be unlimited.
Roe said any time his companies work for a candidate and a PAC in the same race, “we go to great lengths to ensure proper firewalls are in place to prevent any coordination.”
In each race, however, the targets of the PAC spending cried foul.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican who endorsed Luetkemeyer’s opponent in the primary , went so far as to file a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
With November’s general election on the horizon, and only two years away from five statewide offices being up for grabs on the 2020 ballot, the growing influence of outside PACs shows no signs of abating.
Candidates are already gearing up.
A PAC called Uniting Missouri was established this summer to support Gov. Mike Parson, who took over the state’s top job on June 1 after Gov. Eric Greitens’ resignation.
Parson’s personal candidate committee reported having only $124,000 cash on hand last month.
Uniting Missouri raised $225,000 in July. More than half of that money came from clients of lobbyist Steve Tilley, a friend and longtime political adviser to Parson.
John Hancock, a former Missouri GOP chairman who is running Uniting Missouri, said that because contribution limits aren’t going away, candidates have no choice but to form these PACs.
“Otherwise put yourself at a tactical disadvantage to your opponent,” he said.
While PACs and candidates can’t coordinate on spending or messaging, Hancock said, they can coordinate on fundraising. So Parson, for example, is allowed to raise money for Uniting Missouri.
The potential danger, Hancock said, is a candidate can lose control of his or her own campaign message.
“Sometimes these third-party groups air material that actually hurts the candidate they are purporting to help,” he said.
Before passage of Amendment 2 in 2016, there were no limits on how much a candidate could receive from a donor.
That dynamic led to the rise of the megadonor in Missouri politics, with wealthy businessmen such as Rex Sinquefield and David Humphreys regularly cutting six-figure-checks to their preferred candidates and causes.
But opponents of contribution limits say that scenario is preferable to the current situation. Money still finds its way into campaigns, Harris said, but now candidates no longer control the message and voters are left scrambling to sort out where the cash is coming from.
“At least with no contribution limits, I’d argue, you could track where the money was going,” Harris said. “This was the Wild West this past primary season. And the backers of Amendment 2, this wasn’t what they were hoping to accomplish.”
Sean Nicholson, executive director of Clean Missouri, said the argument that contribution limits and transparency are at odds with each other is disingenuous.
He noted that during the era before contribution limits, Greitens benefited from $6 million in campaign cash routed through a nonprofit to hide its source.
“Contribution limits are a good idea,” Nicholson said. “But there are lots of things that need to happen to make our democracy better.”
Clean Missouri is behind a ballot measure this November that would, among other provisions, lower the $2,600 contribution limit for legislative candidates to $2,500 for state Senate candidates and $2,000 for state House candidates.
The proposal also seeks to enact rules to bar donors from routing donations through PACs to circumvent contribution limits.
Nicholson said that if lawmakers were serious about taking on the influence of big money, many ideas have been floated over the years to do so.
“The legislature could be a leader here,” he said, “and it has chosen not to be.”