Talking Politics: Free-for-all Campaign Contributions Have End In Sight

Nov 7, 2016

Missouri has some of the most relaxed campaign contribution limits in the country, which is to say: None.  

Virginia, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Mississippi, Indiana, Iowa, Oregon, Utah, Alabama and Nebraska are the only other states with no limits as to who can donate, how much they can donate and how many times they can donate to a campaign.

Proposals to curb contributions have not gained much traction in Missouri. In the past two years, 19 bills relating to campaign finance law and campaign contributions have been submitted for review. Of those 19, none succeeded in making it to the governor’s desk.

The two most recent pieces of legislation failed in March. However, these bills only had to do with political free speech as it relates to campaign contributions, not with contribution limits.

What this means is that a national political action committee called SEALs for Truth can donate a record-breaking $2 million to Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens, which they did this year. This was the largest donation, but these kinds of contributions aren’t unusual. In fact, out-of-state contributions are fairly common this election season.

Big-dollar donations from out-of-state PACs are playing a major part in Missouri’s congressional races, on average funding more than half of any given election in the state.

A Missouri candidate who is accepting money from PACs will receive roughly 55 percent of their donations from out-of-state committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit organization that researches campaign spending in the U.S.

William Lacy Clay, a Democrat running for office in the congressional district that covers St. Louis, reports 89 percent of his donations coming from national PACs. Sam Graves, a Republican running for office in the congressional district that covers northern Missouri, reports 79 percent of his donations coming from PACs.

More than $3 million have been donated to Missouri candidates by out-of-state donors who have contributed more than $200 at a time. This is already half of what Missouri donors have given. Roy Blunt, running for Senate office, has received more than $3 million in out-of-state contributions. Jason Kander, his opponent, has received more than $2 million. Their campaigns depend on this national support to succeed, but where does this support come from?

In Missouri, there are no limits on what an individual can give. However, ‘individual’ doesn’t just refer to a person. Under Missouri campaign finance law, an ‘individual’ would also refer to a corporation or a PAC. This might mean multimillion-dollar conglomerates, but this might also mean small donors across the country who might take an interest in Missouri politics.

Kenneth Foreman is an out-of-state donor in Massachusetts. He works for the Marine Biology Laboratory with the University of Chicago as an educator. Foreman donated $500 to Gordon Christensen, who is running for election in the congressional district of west-central Missouri.

“In Massachusetts there’s no sense in me contributing to a candidate,” Foreman said. “Because for the most part I agree with the people who get elected, I agree with the people who vote… I felt the possibility of having a larger impact was in some of these other races around the country.”

Foreman wanted to see change in the national political landscape, so he started on the state level. The state legislature has also started looking for a way to change the way people donate in Missouri.

The Missouri Ethics Commission is responsible for managing all campaign finance reports from state candidates. All candidates are required to report to them or they will be fined, the same as a taxpayer who does not report their own finances accurately. However, federal PACs who file with the Federal Election Commission are not required to register with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Executive Director of the Missouri Ethics Commission James Klahr said these contributions that come from out of state make it difficult to track who is receiving what and where.

“We’ve had some complaints,” Klahr said, referring to accurate finance reporting. “A couple of those cases we have dismissed under the theory that the committee did in fact properly report at the federal level, and so they weren’t necessarily required to report additionally here.”

Klahr added, “One thing I think, you know, the state of Missouri might look into in the future is: Are there situations where there should be some additional reporting when a committee files with the FEC, and may be also heavily involved with a campaign here? There could be some laws changed or at least clarified.”

On Nov. 8, a new ballot measure will introduce limits on individual campaign donations. Constitutional Amendment 2 would also restrict which type of corporations could donate.

“So for example, if you’re running for state office, a statewide office or state rep, the most you could accept from one contributor would be $2,600, which of course would be a significant change from our current limit, which is no limits on contributions,” Klahr said.

The proposed amendment is projected to cost the state an additional $118,000, according to the Missouri secretary of state’s government website. Estimates of local costs are yet unknown.