(Updated at 8 p.m. on Monday with news about Schneider repaying her loan.)
Vicki Schneider got on the phone earlier this year with Bob Onder after he loaned himself $200,000 for his state Senate bid.
She said she asked a fairly simple question of one of her opponents for the St. Charles County-based 2nd District seat: "Do you want me to help you spend that?"
“And he just laughed,” she said.
Schneider wasn’t joking around, at least initially. She ended up pouring $245,000 of her own money into her campaign. Soon afterward, the third GOP candidate in the race – state Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger, R-Lake Saint Louis – gave himself $220,000.
For most of July, three people were spending at least $200,000 of their own money to win the same state Senate seat.
“It makes you wonder why. What is driving this?” said George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University. “Are they so desperate to turn back the clock on gay marriage or gun rights or whatever it is? Or are they angling for something more lucrative down the road? Is service in the Senate going to be a steppingstone toward something else?”
Things changed on Monday afternoon. Schneider amended her July fundraising report to note that she had repaid her $245,000 loan. Onder and Gatschenberger issued reports on Monday signaling that their respective loans hadn't be paid off yet.
Some statewide candidates have used their own money to run. In 2012, Dave Spence, the GOP candidate for governor, spent more than $6 million of his own money in his unsuccessful campaign against Gov. Jay Nixon. That same year, Republican John Brunner invested $7.5 million of his money in a losing campaign for GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. (Others -- including Attorney General Chris Koster and former Auditor Susan Montee -- self-funded in the past.)
But it would be an overstatement to say self-funding for legislative candidates is widespread even though some notable examples have popped up over the past few years:
- State Rep. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, loaned himself over $350,000 to run for the 26th District Senate seat. That -- plus money from other big contributors -- probably contributed to scaring off potential GOP contenders for the seat.
- Since 2012, state Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport, has given himself more than $332,000 in donations greater than $5,000 to support his bids for the Missouri House. The personal financial resources of this Yale-educated attorney may be one reason he’s touted as a statewide candidate for 2016.
- State Rep. Nate Walker, R-Kirksville, gave himself $70,000 to gear up for a bruising primary against fellow Republican John Bailey. Bailey has received $50,000 from Missouri Club for Growth, which is almost entirely funded by retired financier Rex Sinquefield.
Self-funding usually prompts two different types of reactions. Some see it as a way for a wealthy candidate to “buy” an office and crowd out qualified candidates lacking access to an instant stream of resources. Others see it as a way to put “skin in the game” – and to maintain their independence from any particular interest group or donor.
Connor views self-funding in state legislative races as the manifestation of several other realities. He says it shows how the state’s political parties no longer control the flow of fundraising to particular candidates. It's also part of a “nationalization” of Missouri politics in which legislative candidates have to raise money constantly to stay relevant.
Ultimately, Connor said, "It could very well be that they have made a significant fortune in private life and now they want to give back to the public. They want to do their civic duty and so on. It’s hard to argue that’s not what’s happening.”
Added Connor, “But because Missouri is a part-time legislature, and this is true for all of them, it becomes a hobby.”
This reporter took Connor’s advice and asked all three 2nd District candidates why they would spend so much of their own money to win a part-time job that pays less than $36,000 a year.
The contenders’ responses were fairly consistent: All three wanted to make a difference in the Missouri legislature. And winning a campaign to get there is expensive.
“I can’t speak for the other candidates. But I did it because it is that important. And I think that in politics as it stands today, it takes quite a bit of money to get the message out,” said Onder, a doctor who also has a law degree. “At the end of the day, to really get one’s message out in this media market and with present postal rates, it costs a lot of money. And it is that important.”
Onder, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money when he ran for Congress in 2008, compared self-funding to how citizens donate to charities or to other political campaigns.
“People do that because the cause, whether it be the symphony orchestra or the children’s hospital or the mission or the church, is that important,” Onder said. “Well, I think public service is that important. And I believe that I have something to offer. And I’m willing to put my own skin in the game to do what needs to be done.”
Schneider, who has owned a general contracting business for nearly four decades, said self-funding has essentially leveled the financial playing field for the three candidates because they have roughly the same amount for advertisements, signs and other campaign paraphernalia.
“I don’t think it’s going to take that amount of money to run these races,” said Schneider earlier this month before she paid off her loan. “Actually, I think there should be limits on races. That way, everybody would have the same amount of money that they can raise and that’s what they use. But that’s not our law right now.”
Gatschenberger said he put his money in the race “because that’s what you need to do when you’re playing at this level.” He also said it could give him more autonomy in his legislative decision-making if he’s not dependent on a particular donor or interest group to run a campaign.
“To play the game, that’s what you have to do. If you’re not beholden to anybody, you don’t have to be beholden to anybody,” said Gatschenberger, who worked as a financial planner and as the head of academic advising for UMSL before winning election to the legislature. “There’s a lot of issues out there where people have tried to get me on one side of the other. It’s like ‘talk to the hand.’ I don’t have time for this crap. I’m here to do my job.”
For his part, Connor said Gatschenberger’s explanation makes plenty of sense. But he said it’s equally plausible that various interest groups may donate to a self-funding candidate because they know the candidate is serious about winning. (He added that he didn’t have any specific data to know whether that happens on a regular basis.)
“Now, if they start refusing money that’s another story,” Connor said.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.