Outside groups dominate spending in Missouri campaigns

4 months 3 weeks 4 days ago Sunday, August 26 2018 Aug 26, 2018 Sunday, August 26, 2018 1:20:00 PM CDT August 26, 2018 in News
By: The Associated Press

KANSAS CITY (AP) — Large donations are flowing into Missouri through independent political action committees after voters amended the state constitution to cap contributions to individual candidates.

The Kansas City Star reports that individual candidates can only collect contributions that are less than the voter-imposed $2,600 limit. But independent PACs face no such restrictions, and donations often are made with no disclosure of where the money comes from.

"Regrettably, this is the new norm," said James Harris, a longtime Republican political consultant in Missouri. "And the casualty is the political process is much less transparent."

Chuck Hatfield, a Democratic attorney with expertise in state election law, says the situation has been playing out at the federal level for years, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that political spending is protected speech.

"Missouri is just catching up with the rest of the country," Hatfield said. "It's a natural outgrowth of contribution limits."

Take, for example, three GOP primary campaigns for seats in the Missouri Senate, where a PAC called Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund spent big to boost its preferred candidates.

Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund raised around $800,000 in the month leading up to the Aug. 2 primary, with more than half coming from a dark-money nonprofit that isn't required to disclose its donors.

In the race for a Senate seat in Platte and Buchanan counties, Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund spent $490,000 over the campaign's final month to assist the eventual winner, Tony Luetkemeyer.

Luetkemeyer and his opponent, Harry Roberts, combined to spend $432,000 during the same period.

A PAC called Missouri Federation for Children spent $120,000 boosting the candidacy of Cindy O'Laughlin, who emerged victorious from a four-way GOP primary for a state Senate seat in northeast Missouri.

Two-thirds of Missouri Federation for Children's money came from Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.

Meanwhile, O'Laughlin came under attack by a PAC called Missouri's Future, which was bankrolled by trial attorneys and spent $181,000 on the race.

Justin Brown won the GOP primary for a Senate seat based in Rolla with the help of $65,000 in spending from a PAC called Team Justin.

Team Justin received $50,000 from Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.

In all three races, the candidates and the PACs that supported them employed the political consulting firm of veteran GOP operative Jeff Roe.

If a candidate coordinates with an independent PAC, any spending would be an in-kind donation subject to contribution limits. If there is no coordination, PAC spending can be unlimited.

Roe said anytime his companies work for a candidate and a PAC in the same race, "we go to great lengths to ensure proper firewalls are in place to prevent any coordination."

In each race, however, the targets of the PAC spending cried foul.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican who endorsed Luetkemeyer's opponent in the primary, went so far as to file a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

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