In December 2014, wealthy St. Louis financier Rex Sinquefield made what at the time was considered the largest single candidate donation in Missouri history.
That month, Sinquefield signed a $1 million check for little-known Bev Randles who was running, not for governor, but for the less-than-mighty post of lieutenant governor.
Randles, of course, did what politicians do and insisted that the mega-donation wouldn’t influence her.
“Rex is one donor,” she said at the time. “He represents one vote.”
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Alas, the million dollars didn’t translate into a Randles victory in the 2016 GOP primary. Maybe news coverage about the donation cost her the win.
Missouri voters looked at all this and did a wise thing in November when they passed campaign contribution limits. With more than 70 percent support, voters set capped candidate donations at $2,600 per election and limited donations to political parties to $25,000.
The vote ended a fairly brief wild-wild-West era in state politics of unlimited candidate donations. After all, no candidate could deny they weren’t bought and paid for when they received a million-dollar check.
But if voters thought the lid on donations was going to slow down political spending, they were flat wrong.
In the wake of that vote, Missouri has seen political insiders come up with a new scheme to keep the dollars flowing. Their latest trick? Create a slew of political action committees, with many of them set up to benefit particular candidates. These committees can accept unlimited donations.
The development suggests that donation limits have probably done little to stop the flow of money into Missouri elections.
Records from the Missouri Ethics Commission show a surge in the number of political committees this year. In all of 2016, 86 committees were formed. In the first nine months of this year, 99 PACs came into existence.
They key here is that the Rex Sinquefields of the world no longer can give their whopper-sized checks directly to a candidate, and that’s a good thing. The money, though, can now go to a political committee that can help that candidate, but not coordinate its activities with the candidate’s campaign. That’s an important change, although it’s clear Missouri voters would prefer to see fewer dollars in campaigns.
Something to consider: Voters are giving up something with these contribution caps — and that’s transparency. When Sinquefield gave that $1 million donation to Randles, his name was disclosed on a report. Donors now shifting their money to political committees know that some types of committees, such as the increasingly popular 501(c)4s, don’t have to disclose their benefactors.
Now, Missourians may not know how much Sinquefield donated to various causes.
Missourians will have to weigh that loss of transparency and decide if donation caps are worth it.