On the trail: Why Missouri's no-limit campaign contribution culture may be here to stay
Sen. Rob Schaaf probably wouldn’t be classified as bleeding heart liberal.
Throughout his tenure in the Missouri General Assembly, the St. Joseph Republican took sometimes-provocative conservative positions in battles over Medicaid expansion and unemployment benefits. He's encountered rightward plaudits and gubernatorial jeers for his latest stance against a St. Louis stadium funding plan.
But Schaaf parts ways with his party on campaign donation limits.
That same year, Schaaf joined a slim majority of his House colleagues in repealing limits – a move he now regrets.
“One of the things that I’ve learned is that we are all subject to some tribe mentality. That probably was an example of that back when. "I’ve observed the special interests kill my bills in every possible way that bills can be killed," said Schaaf, who has long pushed to change the state's certificate of need program and to institute "price transparency" for medical procedures. "Politically and parliamentary-wise. … Often times there are no finger prints. But when you dig, you find out that somebody killed the bill on the purpose, usually at the behest of a special interest.”
Schaaf is part of a bumper crop of Missouri politicians who have rethought their positions on campaign finance limits. It comes at a time when some prominent Democratic officials are trying to stoke public interest in bringing donation limits back – contending that big money contributes to lax ethical standards.
“I want to try to help them make that change, because clearly the Republicans in Jeff City think it’s just fine that this mud pit we're in without any rules of the road – they’re fine with it,” U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said earlier this year. “I think it’s a big mistake for our state. And eventually, it will create an environment where a bunch of people will go to jail. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But you can’t have this kind of unchecked ability to wash money around in this state without somebody breaking the law.”
But even with seemingly incessant talk of reinstating donation limits in Missouri, the pathway to actually achieving that goal is getting steeper and steeper by the day.
That’s because there are clearly not enough Republicans like Schaaf to join with a dwindling mass of Democratic lawmakers to reinstitute limits through the legislature. And even if there were, Missouri’s next governor will be much less enthusiastic about donation limits than the current officeholder.
Democrats like McCaskill may have promised to bring the issue of donation limits directly to voters, such promises have not been fulfilled in the recent past. It’s an environment that leads many to believe that state’s no-limit contribution culture is here to stay.
There’s been ongoing chatter about re-instituting donation limits since 2008, the year the Missouri General Assembly narrowly approved getting rid of them.
Primarily Republican proponents contended that limits created an un-transparent environment where big donations were shuttled to candidates through third-party committees. While then-Sen. Charlie Shields’ bill passed the Senate by a comfortable margin, it only received 83 votes in the House – barely enough to get to then-Gov. Matt Blunt’s desk.
Since then, some of the lawmakers who voted "yes"expressed regret over their decision. Many have been taken aback by the size of donations from wealthy individuals, such as retired financier Rex Sinquefield. And well-financed organized labor groups and trial attorneys have written big checks to key Democratic officials.
During an interview in 2013, then-Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, said repealing donation limits “the biggest regretting vote that I have.” Sens. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, have expressed similar sentiments in the last couple of years.
“I think it’s hurt the system when you can have a handful of individuals that can pretty much underwrite one candidate,” said Rupp, who is now a member of the Public Service Commission. “Why should that candidate reach out and learn about other areas of the state? Reach out to different types of people or different types of voters? When all they have to do is making one or two or three or four people happy in the state?”
“So I think it looks bad. It smells bad,” he added. “Somebody gives you a $500,000 in one check, you’re going to take their call.”
But the very public infusion of money and second thoughts of politicians hasn’t changed the lay of the land in the General Assembly. Efforts to reinstate limits have never gone anywhere in the GOP-controlled legislature, either through standalone legislation or amendments.
Most Republicans generally share the view of people like state Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Ballwin Republican who doesn’t feel donation limits are effective.
“If you end up trying to put those limits on, it will be back to the old days where people will just form lots and lots of PAC and distribute the money that way,” Dogan said earlier this year.
Former state Sen. Jason Crowell said removing donation limits had plenty of unintended consequences, especially since candidates had to “shake a lot of hands” during the days of contributions caps to raise significant amounts of money.
But he’s not sure that putting donation limits back on would necessarily result in a cleaner political system.
“The people that are in the game understand that when you had campaign limits, legislative district committees were used and power was consolidated in individual party bosses,” Crowell said. “Without limits, that doesn’t exist anymore. You’ve seen both parties struggle with financing, because now people are investing directly in the candidate.”
“Nothing is going to be perfect. The trade off that was made that I would probably still support is transparency,” he added. “Before there was no transparency.”
That type of opinion will likely rule the day throughout the legislature -- regardless of who becomes the state's next governor after Gov. Jay Nixon steps aside due to term limits.
None of the Republican gubernatorial contenders is on record support campaign finance limits. Former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, for instance, said last year that with limits "people just find another way. ... I mean, money is like water. And so, it goes into frankly the nooks and crannies as opposed to running down the mainstream."
The likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee – Attorney General Chris Koster – has parted way with his party on the issue for years. He voted to remove donation limits in 2006 when he was a Republican and again in 2008 when he switched to the Democratic side.
Unlike Schaaf, Rupp or Nasheed, Koster hasn’t disavowed his votes or changed his position. He's long argued that donation caps are ineffective, especially after the Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.
He said late last year he was in favor of a host of ethics-related ideas, including curtailing lobbyist gifts and revealing donors to politically active nonprofit groups. But he said that “issues of campaign finance have become enormously complicated because of the Citizens United decision.”
“The thing that worries me most about campaign finance proposals is that many of them have the unintended consequences of creating more dark money and chasing money into the shadows,” said Koster, alluding to how Citizens United made it almost impossible to regulate the size of donations to third party groups. “And that to me is a corrosive unintended consequence.”
Koster’s fellow Democrats have reacted to his opposition to campaign finance limits with a collective shrug – even when forcefully criticizing Republicans on the issue. Secretary of State Jason Kander, for instance, said last year that Koster’s opposition to limits hadn't spurred much contention among Democrats.
When asked about Koster’s position on campaign finance limits – and the fact that he’s taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from Sinquefield between 2007 and 2012 – McCaskill said: “He’s going to make some decisions around that. And I will leave that to him.”
McCaskill has said one of her biggest priorities next election cycle is getting a constitutional amendment up for a vote that would reinstate contribution limits. She said she’s “tired of living in a state where a billionaire can buy the state government.” (She's likely alluding to Sinquefield, who's given big political donations over the years primarily to Republicans -- and some Democrats such as Koster and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.)
“When they took over state government, they threw out campaign finance limits. They do not want campaign finance limits,” McCaskill said, criticizing Republicans. “They think it’s just fine that a billionaire is writing million dollar checks to individual candidates who’ve never run for office before. That’s absurd.”
But if McCaskill’s words sound familiar, it’s because other Democratic officials – including Nixon and former state Auditor Susan Montee – have said the same things and failed to deliver on initiative petition pledges.
University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor David Kimball says the expense of putting an initiative on the ballot is a steep barrier – unless groups have lots and lots of volunteers. While there have been several campaign finance-related petitions submitted for circulation, none has received a significant influx of cash.
“The most likely route would be through a signature process from registered voters. Which is pretty onerous,” Kimball said. “You have to get a certain number of signatures from registered voters from six of the eight congressional districts in the state. It probably costs about a million dollars to mount such an effort or a huge volunteer effort. And I don’t see the forces in favor of contribution limits having that kind of volunteer at their disposal.
“So ironically, it would cost a lot of money to mount such an effort,” he added.
McCaskill, though, said she’s “busy trying to recruit partners” for a donation limit effort. That includes Republicans, possibly like Schaaf, who don't like the current state of affairs.
While Crowell said he won't be one of the partners, he does wonder if limit proponents were aware of what he saw as "unitended consequences."
"It’s a completely different dynamic when you first get elected and you have to build the relationships and knock on the doors and do everything to raise ‘x’ amount of dollars at that level," Crowell said. "You’re touching a lot of people. ... You’re hearing ideas."
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.