In 2006, Missouri Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake, was tired of the growing use of opaque, innocuously named committees created to circumvent campaign finance limits by shuffling money from wealthy donors to candidates.
“Citizens For Good Government, Citizens For Very Good Government, Southeast Missouri Citizens for Very Good Government” he said. “You couldn’t tell where the money was coming from.”
The cash flowing into state politics had been rising since voters overwhelmingly approved limits in 1994, and Green concluded that if the tide of spending couldn’t be stemmed, at the very least, some transparency was needed.
He added an amendment to a bill that repealed the limits so that donors would give directly to candidates instead of splitting checks among various committees. The bill was signed into law, though it was tossed out by the state Supreme Court in 2007 on procedural grounds. During its next session, the Legislature voted again to remove limits.
In the last eight years, Missouri has earned the reputation as a total free-for-all when it comes to political fundraising, culminating in the current governor’s race, a state-record $72 million-plus election that is the most expensive governor’s race in the nation in 2016, according to the National Institute for Money in State Politics.
“I never realized when I was in the Legislature there would be people willing to spend $10, $20, $30 million of their own personal wealth to influence elections,” Green said. “Boy, was I naive.”
On Nov. 8, Missouri voters will be asked if they want to reinstate the limits through a constitutional amendment. The proposal is designed to address the loopholes that were routinely exploited when limits were in place, said Todd Jones, the lawyer who drafted the amendment.
Critics of the amendment argue that capping donations unfairly limits political expression and will redirect donor money to less transparent third-party groups. Supporters say not having the limits concentrates power and influence among wealthy donors and interest groups that disproportionately fund campaigns. With little organized opposition, the amendment is expected to pass, though it probably will face a court challenge.
It has already survived several.
If passed, the amendment won’t necessarily lead to a big drop in political spending. Though it caps donations to candidates at $2,600 and makes it illegal in most cases to shuffle money between committees, any political action committee not affiliated with a candidate or party can still receive unlimited donations and spend freely to advocate for or against any candidate or cause.
“That’s going to happen regardless and you can’t constitutionally limit that,” Jones said, pointing to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which ruled that political spending by corporations and labor unions couldn’t be restricted. It also wouldn’t limit donations to ballot initiative committees, where some of the most prolific special interest spending occurs.
More cash, fewer donors
Did allowing unlimited contributions invite a flood of money into politics? Before the current election, the answer might have been no.
While the rising number of six- and seven-figure checks have consistently grabbed headlines, eliminating the limits didn’t immediately alter the trajectory of overall spending, which had been rising before limits were repealed, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of historical data from the National Institute for Money in State Politics.
The most prolific fundraisers — gubernatorial candidates — raised similar amounts each cycle from 2004-2012. Legislative races, on the other hand, saw an immediate jump in spending once limits were eliminated. The level of spending has held steady even as the number of contested races has declined. The remaining competitive races are seeing much more spending than in the past.
One striking trend in the data isn’t more money — it’s that as politicians raise more cash, they’re reaching out to far fewer donors.
In the 2004 election cycle, excluding donations under $100 that typically aren’t itemized, candidates for Missouri statewide and legislative offices got 111,000 donations and raised $53.5 million.
As of the end of the last quarterly filing period in September, candidates this cycle got 79,000 donations and raised $118 million.
In the race for governor, which featured an expensive four-way Republican primary, the $60 million raised as of Sept. 30 more than doubled what candidates raised in 2004 — with fewer than half as many donations. Since then, Republican nominee Eric Greitens and Democratic nominee Chris Koster raised an additional $12 million from larger donations disclosed prior to quarterly filings.
“It’s amazing how little they do to raise all this money,” said former state Rep. Chris Kelly. “It produces welfare to legislators … They don’t have to earn their own way.”
The prospect of increased third-party spending wasn’t a good reason to keep the current system, he said. “Because you can conceive of a future malady doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fix the malady you have.”
More outside money
Another effect of no limits has been how easily out-of-state money from political parties, organized labor and industry groups has entered Missouri races. In 2004, 9 percent of the overall money given directly to candidates came from out-of-state donors. This year, it’s 27 percent. And that doesn’t account for money given to candidates by Missouri PACs that raised money from outside the state.
In the governor’s race, the $31 million raised from donors outside Missouri is more than what candidates raised from donors everywhere in 2012. Factor in donations from Missouri groups that pass along money transferred from national parent organizations, and the outside infusion is certainly higher. The average itemized out-of-state donation in the race is $12,400, nearly twice what it was four years ago.
The proposed amendment would keep much of that money from entering candidate coffers, but it can’t keep it out of Missouri.
Independent groups that would have a much easier time raising cash would play a larger role than ever before, said Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock, causing candidates and state parties to have less control.
Hancock believes unlimited contributions added transparency, but weakened the state party system because more donors went straight to their preferred candidates. He expects the amendment, which caps what people can give to parties at $25,000 per election, will further weaken the state party system. “While many people think that’s a positive thing,” he said, “I do not.”
“You used to be able to go to the polls, and if you didn’t recognize a name, you knew the person had been vetted, recruited, aided, even assisted by the parties,” he said. “I think there’s value in that. Now, it’s a free-for-all.”
While independent spending probably would rise, it isn’t likely to dominate every race, and supporters of limits argue that many candidates would be forced to reach out to a wider swath of constituents to fund their campaigns and get their message out.
“They’ll have to work harder to do it, and some people won’t and will fall by the wayside, “Kelly said, “and that’s a good thing.”