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Missouri's new donation limits bolster powers of political parties — and outside groups

Once perceived as all-powerful, Missouri’s two major political parties have been relegated to the balcony ever since the state got rid of campaign-donation limits in 2008.  That change allowed the bulk of the state’s political cash to flow directly to the candidates. 

The state Republican and Democratic parties found most of their income eliminated, and ended up being beholden to their top politicians for payments just to keep their offices open and staffed. 

But now, unless the courts rule otherwise, Missouri once again has campaign donation limits for some elective offices, courtesy of Amendment 2, which almost 70 percent of the state's voters approved last month. 

As of Dec. 8, candidates for state and legislative offices are now barred from accepting more than $2,600 per election from individual donors.  The state parties are covered by much larger donation limits of $25,000 per election.

The change puts political parties back in business – and, potentially, in the driver’s seat. Soon-to-be Missouri GOP chairman Todd Graves is already assessing the change. 

“One of the realities is the party’s going to have to be more robust and perhaps perform some of the functions that the candidates have taken on the last eight years,’’ Graves said. 

Some of those “functions’’ likely will center on get-out-the-vote efforts, such as rallies featuring most of a party’s ticket, mailings and some TV and radio ads. 

State parties also may resurrect their old role of candidate recruitment (or discouragement).  

Party leaders predict unintended consequences

Graves, by the way, opposes donation limits because he believes they curb “free speech.”  In fact, his law firm expects to soon file a suit challenging some of the provisions of Amendment 2.

Outgoing Republican Party chairman John Hancock acknowledges that there will be a change, but he says it may not be the change that voters expect.  He has first-hand experience with the way things used to be, because he was executive director of the Missouri GOP during its halcyon days from 1997-2004, when campaign limits were in place.

Hancock  recalled with a chuckle that state parties used to be “the quarterback’’ calling some of the key political plays.  During Missouri’s eight years without limits, he said the party became more of a “placekicker” – sometimes providing strategic help, and sometimes not.

Outgoing Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Outgoing Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock

The resurrection of donation limits will heighten the state parties’ roles, Hancock said, but there are key provisions in Amendment 2 that he believes will curb the their clout.

First and foremost, is the recent rise of outside political groups. They are not covered by any donation limits under Amendment 2. And many – notably 501C4s – don’t have to identify their donors.

The new chairman of the state Democratic Party – outgoing state Rep. Stephen Webber of Columbia, Mo.  -- calls the lack of restrictions on outside campaign groups “a pretty glaring loophole that threatens the ability to get money out of politics.”

The chief aim of donation limits, Webber said, had been to “make sure mega-donors don’t buy up elected officials.”

Webber notes, for example, that it appears the $25,000-per-election limit on political party donations won’t apply to their special Democratic or Republican arms – such as the campaign caucuses that both parties set up for the state House and Senate.

Big donors find another route for their money

“They’re going to be able to raise unlimited money,’’ Webber said. The upshot could be that major GOP donors such as Rex Sinquefield and David Humphreys may simply direct their large donations to the party caucuses, which then in turn could spend the money independently to help preferred candidates.

Stephen Webber, new Missouri Democratic Party chairman
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Stephen Webber, new Missouri Democratic Party chairman

Webber added that the GOP House and Senate campaign operations have long been superior to their Democratic counterparts. One of his key objectives, he added, will be to beef up those Democratic arms, especially if  Republicans use theirs to amass huge sums of campaign money that can no longer go directly to candidates.

The upshot, said Webber, is that the lack of donation restrictions on outside groups defeats the chief aim of donation limits to “make sure mega-donors don’t buy up elected officials.”

That’s why Hancock is pessimistic that Amendment 2’s limits will do what voters have in mind – curb the clout of huge donors, some of whom had been giving $1 million or more directly to candidates.

“All of these ‘reforms,’ “ he said, “at the end of the day, strengthen outside, nonparty groups.”

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
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