Political campaign contributions in limbo in Missouri
By Tom Weber, KWMU
St. Louis, MO – Thousands of political candidates in Missouri - from the governor to small town mayors - are in limbo this week, at least their money is.
The Missouri Supreme Court recently re-instated campaign contribution limits. That ruling put to end nearly seven months of unlimited donations, which creates something of a dilemma.
Should candidates have to return any of that money?
The question comes after Gov. Matt Blunt made history on March 4th this year when he accepted the first $100,000 donation in Missouri political history.
In fact, he took in three checks of that amount that day (from David Humphreys, of Joplin; and from Doylene and Bob Perry, of Houston). He's taken in a handful more since.
But each of those donors might be getting more than $98,000 back, and they have James Trout to thank.
It was Trout's lawsuit that ended with a unanimous ruling to re-instate contribution limits.
Trout stands tall, skinny and bald outside his suburban St. Louis home; the goatee gives him a Vladimir Lenin kind of look, but a happy, jovial Vladimir Lenin.
He ran for state representative last year and lost but he's trying again next year and if he wins, he'll be the guy at the capitol with the dingy bicycle on the back of his car.
"I probably did not hit three figures buying this because I have found the one time I bought a really nice bike, it was stolen in three days and I realized nobody steals crappy bikes," Trout mused.
But even if Trout never wins, he's already left his mark and he says he's happy the ruling means he can't raise unlimited gobs of money.
"At first blush that's probably a very attractive idea," Trout concedes. "But of course, down the road, everybody's doing it. So it accelerates the corruption because it doesn't ever get better."
The re-instated limits now ban individuals from giving more than $1,275 to a candidate. But what about those donations when the limits were lifted?
Missouri's Attorney General Jay Nixon thinks the portion over the limit should be returned. "It would be patently unfair to give the incumbent a huge advantage over any potential challenger," he noted.
"Let's not kid ourselves, accepting $40,000 checks does have a chilling effect on an open election."
But Jay Nixon isn't just Missouri's top lawyer, he's also running for Governor. And no one has more to lose than the current governor, Republican Matt Blunt.
Blunt has raised $8 million so far this election, more than twice Nixon. If the court orders the money returned, Blunt would have to give back nearly $4 million to Nixon's $1 million.
That's why the Missouri Republican Party has ramped up its criticism of Nixon. Party spokesman Paul Sloca says it's a conflict of interest for Nixon to weigh in.
"Jay Nixon is politically motivated and wants these to be retroactive so he can get back in the game against Governor Blunt," Sloca said. "This is just a confirmation that Jay Nixon is playing politics with his office and the laws of the state of Missouri."
Nixon denies that, but the possible impact is not lost on University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist Dave Robertson.
"What Blunt has to be thinking about is not just Nixon but he has to think about a potential challenger in the Republican primary," Robertson. "Any challenger will have less funds than matt Blunt will have but Blunt's going to have to put a lot of money into the primary he'd rather not put into the primary and save for Nixon."
But the ruling will have no impact on at least one candidate, James Trout.
He hasn't yet formed a committee to accept donations for his second run for office, waiting instead for the court to decide just how much potential contributors can give him.