The biggest loser in Tuesday’s primary elections was someone who wasn’t even on the ballot.
Rex Sinquefield, the retired investor and St. Louis conservative activist, donated more than $11 million to candidates in Tuesday’s Missouri Republican primaries, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of records. The overwhelming bulk of that money went to just three GOP candidates: gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway, attorney general candidate Kurt Schaefer and lieutenant governor candidate Bev Randles.
In all three cases, Sinquefield’s picks lost — by almost 30 points, in Schaefer’s case.
“It ended up being cost-ineffective, I guess,” quipped Ken Warren, political science professor at St. Louis University.
Warren said the episode should demonstrate that, although big money certainly can be a factor in political success, “it’s not the only factor. Money can’t buy everything.”
Sinquefield spokesman Travis Brown on Wednesday sought to put the best face on the losses. He pointed out that, even if Sinquefield’s preferred candidates didn’t win, the GOP primary victories went mostly to candidates who agree with Sinquefield’s stances in favor of lower taxes and “right-to-work” legislation weakening the power of labor unions.
“It was a pretty firm rebuke of (Democratic) Gov. Jay Nixon’s failed economic policies,” Brown said. “I think everybody is ready to move forward, encouraged by the fact that the people who campaigned for tax cuts and who want to lower the price of work are still running. It’s not over until Nov. 8.”
Of course, in the Republican primaries, virtually all the candidates agree on those two issues. The question is, why did Sinquefield’s big bets lose?
In the case of Hanaway, his most expensive loss, the money itself may have had the ironic effect of hurting her at the polls.
In the four-way GOP gubernatorial primary, Hanaway, a former Missouri House speaker, came in last, with less than 20 percent of the vote, about 15 points behind the winner, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. Sinquefield (or committees Sinquefield funds) had supported Hanaway to the tune of about $4.5 million, by far her largest source of funding.
Complete election results
County by county: How Greitens won
From the start, Hanaway’s Republican opponents made hay of the theme that Sinquefield was almost single-handedly bankrolling her campaign.
“Rex Sinquefield is trying to buy a governor,” state Auditor Tom Schweich alleged in January 2015, in announcing his own GOP gubernatorial campaign, at a time when Hanaway was the only other Republican in the race. “These are not Republicans, these are Rex-publicans.”
Schweich committed suicide a month later, after complaining bitterly about the tactics of fellow Republicans, including a vicious radio ad put up by a Hanaway supporter. As other candidates joined the race, they took up the mantle of criticism of Hanaway’s continuing cash infusions from Sinquefield.
“I think the Tom Schweich thing did her in,” said Warren, the SLU political scientist. He noted that the tragedy drew attention to political tactics and, by extension, the money that funds them. “She never recovered from that.”
Even with Hanaway’s help from Sinquefield, Greitens was able to outraise her and the other candidates, ultimately spending about $8 million to Hanaway’s roughly $5 million.
“Money doesn’t make up for everything, but it can buy name recognition,” said Warren. “That’s what Greitens did.”
Lieutenant governor candidate Randles is a Kansas City attorney who has been a key Sinquefield ally in the past. He donated about $2.5 million to her campaign, including a single $1 million contribution to start it. Randles lost in the three-way primary for lieutenant governor with about 44 percent of the vote, about 7 points behind the winner, state Sen. Mike Parson.
Sinquefield’s biggest loss came in the race for the GOP attorney general’s nomination. Schaefer, a state senator to whom Sinquefield had donated more than $3.6 million, was creamed by University of Missouri law professor Josh Hawley, about 64-36 percent.
Sinquefield did score some victories Tuesday, though all in lower-tier races.
Right-to-work supporter Bill Eigel beat union-backed Rep. Anne Zerr in the Republican primary race to fill a vacant Senate seat in eastern St. Charles County, with heavy backing from Sinquefield.
Sinquefield also backed state Rep. Andrew Koenig in his defeat of former state Rep. Rick Stream for the GOP nomination to a St. Louis County state Senate seat.
And state Sen. Eric Schmitt won the Republican nomination for state treasurer with $750,000 from Sinquefield — though Schmitt ran unopposed.
While Sinquefield towers in big-money giving under Missouri’s unusual no-limits political system, he isn’t alone.
Especially active this election has been David Humphreys, president of Joplin-based TAMKO Building Products. With members of his family, Humphreys gave about $5.7 million to various Republican primary candidates on Tuesday’s ballot, records show. Those donations included $2.5 million to Hawley, who beat Sinquefield’s preferred candidate, Schaefer, in the primary for attorney general.
Still, no one is anywhere near Sinquefield in terms of total largess to Missouri politicians. As of early last year, his all-time total political spending in the state was estimated at about $37 million — and that was before much of the $11 million he has spent in the current election.
Brown, Sinquefield’s spokesman, signaled that despite pouring millions into unsuccessful candidates, Sinquefield has no intention of closing his wallet heading into the general election.
Walker Moskop and Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch staff contributed to this report.