Research from a California-based nonprofit finds Missouri voters are often kept in the dark about campaign spending.
The report from Maplight found independent groups spent $15 million to influence the 2018 state elections in Missouri. It also found that more than 10% of independent spending in candidate races, and more than 35% of spending in campaigns for ballot measures came from groups that are not required by law to disclose their sources of funding.
The report makes a distinction between spending from political action committees like those from labor unions or business sectors and groups whose sources of funding are less clear.
“I think it's really just not particularly fair to voters to have money being spent to sort of sway their opinions and not be able to trace back who is behind those messages,” said Hamsini Sridharan, program manager for Maplight. “And I think, this is a growing problem that we see at the federal level as well.”
Sridharan told KCUR 89.3 that the group became interested in Missouri after hearing about the controversy over the role non-profit groups played in the political rise of former Gov. Eric Greitens. A former aide told St. Louis Public Radio that Greitens raised at least “$6 million in untraceable money.”
Maplight found a dark money group tied to Greitens, A New Missouri, spent money to support Proposition A, which would have upheld the state’s right-to-work law. It was overwhelmingly defeated in August. Overall, $3.4 million was spent by dark money groups to support Prop A, while only $342,000 in dark money was spent in opposition.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the group found more than $1 million was spent to support Proposition B, which raises Missouri’s minimum wage. Most of that funding came from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a progressive dark money nonprofit.
Dark money and other independent spending were not limited to ballot measures: nearly $10 million dollars from independent groups went into state candidate races. On the Senate side, groups spent heavily in three races in the Kansas City region: District 34 in Platte and Buchanan Counties, District 17 in Clay County and District 8 in eastern Jackson County.
Groups spent close to $2 million in District 34 alone, where Republican Tony Luetkemeyer emerged as the winner. Luetkemeyer’s office declined to comment on the report.
The special election in District 17, where Democrat Lauren Arthur emerged over Republican Kevin Corlew saw more than $1 million in outside spending.
“Dark Money from anonymous sources—on both sides of the political spectrum—is corrupting our elections and replacing substantive policy debates with gutter politics,” Arthur said in a statement to KCUR 89.3. “Candidates can’t control it, but we can speak out against it, and I will continue to do so.”
Advocates for more transparency in government said the report is a wake-up call.
“What we need is for voters to have the right to know where the money is coming from,” said Rob Schaaf, son of the former state senator and policy director of the Show Me Integrity coalition. “If you're trying to buy an election or a politician, then voters deserve to at least know who you are.”
Sridharan said researchers spent 65 hours sifting through the data, because some of the reports contained handwritten forms that were not readable by machines.
Correction: Rob Schaaf's title has been updated.
King is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelKingNews