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Hawley vs. McCaskill: A sideshow battle of billionaire donors

Hawley vs. McCaskill: A sideshow battle of billionaire donors


WASHINGTON • Missouri’s U.S. Senate race is a billionaire’s battleground.

Some of the deepest pockets in America are funding an unprecedented outside spending barrage aimed at electing either Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., or her Republican challenger, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

That independent spending, separate from what Hawley and McCaskill are spending on their own campaigns, has already surpassed $41 million, more than three weeks before the election.

The independent barrage is almost certain to outpace what the candidates themselves will spend. Based on their last campaign finance reports, McCaskill was on pace to raise roughly $30 million; Hawley perhaps $10 million or less.

Meanwhile, Missouri is leading the nation in the amount of outside spending in a Senate race, making it the prime showcase for the mega-dollar independent groups that have proliferated since the 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United opened politics to unlimited individual, corporate and union spending.

A who’s who of wealth

The list of political financiers in Missouri this year reads like a who’s who of hedge fund owners, gambling moguls, entertainers, unions and corporations. Their spending will heavily influence which party controls both the Senate and the House in 2019.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog, reported that through Thursday, roughly $700 million had been spent by these groups in campaigns around the country. By Election Day, that amount is certain to far outpace the $810 million spent by independent groups in the last nonpresidential election in 2014.

The highest spending to date by outside groups in U.S. Senate races was $135 million in Pennsylvania in 2016, a state with twice Missouri’s population.

“A huge fraction of the outside spending occurs just in the month before the election, so while I doubt that Missouri will reach the same heights, we can’t rule it out yet,” said CRP spokesman Andrew Mayersohn.

The most prolific outside spender in Missouri so far has been a political action committee and a separate dark money nonprofit affiliated with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. They’re running ads attacking Hawley and praising McCaskill.

CRP data showed that as of Oct. 11 Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC had surpassed $14 million in spending in the state. Majority Forward, a Schumer-affiliated nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, has spent another $3 million. As of Oct. 11, Senate Majority PAC had spent at least $32 million on behalf of Democratic Senate candidates in other states.

Billionaire global philanthropist George Soros gave $2.4 million to Schumer’s group. Soros’ son, Alexander, gave $2 million.

Donald Sussman, whose Paloma Partners hedge fund was one of the biggest contributors to a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, has given $4.5 million to Schumer’s group. Other big donors include Seth McFarlane, creator and producer of the animated TV series “Family Guy,” who has given $2 million. Comedian and HBO talk-show host Bill Maher gave $1 million.

Schumer’s groups have run ads attacking Hawley for joining in a lawsuit challenging Obamacare, which Democrats say threatens coverage of those with pre-existing conditions. McCaskill, in her campaign, has also attacked Hawley on this issue.

Hawley says he supports pre-existing condition coverage, but not through what he calls a broken Obamacare law.

Chris Hayden, a spokesman for the Schumer PAC and nonprofit, portrayed Schumer’s heavy involvement in Missouri as an arms race against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund, which itself has spent just short of $50 million nationally and $10 million attacking McCaskill in Missouri.

“Josh Hawley was recruited to run for this race by Mitch McConnell” and McConnell’s political groups have “rewarded Hawley with millions in TV ads,” Hayden said.

The Republican leader McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund’s received $25 million from Las Vegas casino and newspaper owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. Sheldon Adelson has long been a Republican financier.

McConnell’s group has also raised money from hedge fund owners and corporations, including Chevron ($1.4 million). Houston Texans football team owner Robert McNair Sr. gave $1 million.

Stetson University law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a former aide to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is the author of the 2016 book “Corporate Citizen? An Argument for the Separation of Corporation and State.”

“The reason why Citizens United has generated criticism is that a corporation will typically have way more financial resources than the average citizen to spend in, say, a federal election, so the corporation is likely to have an outsized voice in a competitive race,” she said.

“Reasonable minds can differ,” she said. “I would prefer a system where individuals would have their chance to speak about their political views. And the problem with inviting corporations to speak is they just have a way bigger sound system.”

McConnell and his allies defend Citizens United’s decision that spending is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.

benevolent-sounding names

Other outside groups advertising in Missouri, and their notable financial backers, include:

• The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent more than $5.2 million on Hawley’s behalf.

Its gotten almost $1 million from Koch Industries, the corporate corpus of the Kansas-based energy moguls Charles and David Koch, longtime donors to Republican candidates and causes.

Other NRSC donors include more than $410,000 from Anheuser-Busch InBev. A company spokeswoman declined to comment.

Boyden Gray and Associates, which represents Missouri and Illinois corn trade groups, gave more than $271,000.

• The Koch’s Americans for Prosperity has spent roughly $3.9 million in ads attacking McCaskill for voting for Obamacare and against Republican tax cuts, and on other issues.

This Koch group spent more than $33 million to try to defeat then-President Barack Obama in 2012, and it helped finance the rise of the Tea Party.

Priorities Action USA, heavily financed by Sussman ($6 million) and Soros ($5 million), has spent $2.7 million attacking Hawley and more than $300,000 supporting McCaskill. In total, Priorities Action has spent at least $16.7 million going after Republicans in House and Senate races around the country, according to CRP.

Five national unions have given in the $100,000 to $250,000 range to Priorities Action.

CFG Action, an arm of the small government Club For Growth, has spent roughly $2.4 million in Missouri attacking McCaskill. Nationally, its biggest donors are Illinois businessman Richard Uihlein ($2 million) and well-known Missouri Republican mega-donor David Humphreys ($850,000, according to the latest CRP analysis).

Humphreys was a multimillion-dollar giver to the campaigns of both Hawley (for attorney general) and former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens in 2016. He gave an estimated $17 million to Republicans in the 2016 election.

Uihlein, founder of the shipping supplies company Uline and descendant of the founders of Schlitz Beer, gave $2.5 million to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s unsuccessful primary challenger, Jeanne Ives.

Politico earlier this year described the “intensely private” Uihlein as “the biggest Republican mega-donor you have never heard of,” and said that as of May, he had given $21 million to Republican candidates around the country.

WomenVote, an arm of the Democratic women’s PAC EMILY’s List, has spent just under $2 million attacking Hawley, part of a $14 million effort nationally. It launched a new ad Thursday attacking Hawley on pre-existing conditions.

Sussman, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hedge fund manager, gave the group $2.5 million. Former New York Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg has contributed almost $2 million. Bloomberg announced this month he was switching his registration from independent to Democrat, a predicate for running for president in 2020.

Missouri Rising Action is the most homegrown of the noncandidate players in the Senate race, with more than $1.2 million spent attacking McCaskill. Its primary donor is Humphreys, CEO of the Joplin TAMKO Building Products, who gave almost $1.2 million.

In addition, August Busch III, former chairman of Anheuser-Busch, gave $160,000.

The National Rifle Association has spent $900,000, half supporting Hawley and half attacking McCaskill. The group had spent roughly $4 million on campaigns as of Oct. 11. Its donor base consists of scores of givers of $5,000 or under from all over the country, according to CRP.

Patients for Affordable Drug Action, one of the rare bipartisan super PACs, has spent $593,000 supporting McCaskill. It launched a new ad Thursday praising her for “leading the fight against the drug industry’s abusive pricing.”

Nationally, the group has spent roughly $6.5 million supporting Democrats and Republicans it says are fighting big pharma’s pricing practices.

Roughly half of Affordable Drug Action’s donations — $3.2 million — have come from Action Now Initiative, a Dallas-based group founded by hedge fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura.

The Post-Dispatch reported in August that Action Now had also given $312,000 to the Clean Missouri ethics reform initiative.

New normal?

Is this the new norm — campaigns awash in huge, independent campaigns, dwarfing those of the candidates themselves?

Torres-Spelliscy, the Stetson law professor, said that “the biggest reforms that we have had in campaign finance have followed epic scandals,” most recently after Watergate, and then after the bankruptcy of the energy giant Enron, whose leadership had established deep donation tentacles into Congress.

Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election, has already gotten a guilty plea from President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, for violating federal campaign finance law by paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels. Is anything more to come from Mueller?

“We may be on the precipice of a pretty epic campaign finance scandal around the 2016 election,” Torres-Spelliscy said, referring to Mueller’s ongoing investigation and Cohen’s guilty plea.

“Is (Cohen) the only person in that orbit who broke campaign finance rules?” she asked. “Or, after the midterm, are we going to see more indictments from the Justice Department or from Robert Mueller?

“If it shakes out like Watergate, then you might get a groundswell of support to change and improve the campaign finance laws at the federal level,” Torres-Spelliscy said. “But barring that, it’s all just money laundering.”

Hawley vs. McCaskill: Coverage of the 2018 Senate race

Post-Dispatch coverage of the 2018 race for Missouri's U.S. Senate seat.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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