McClatchy's America

Missouri’s move to limit campaign donations puts elections in hands of big-money PACs

Two political action committees spent more than $400,000 in October on television ads aimed at boosting Republican state Senate candidate Mike Cierpiot and attacking his Democratic opponent. Tuesday night, Cierpiot (center) spoke to supporters after winning election.
Two political action committees spent more than $400,000 in October on television ads aimed at boosting Republican state Senate candidate Mike Cierpiot and attacking his Democratic opponent. Tuesday night, Cierpiot (center) spoke to supporters after winning election.

When it started looking as if Mike Cierpiot’s chances of winning a state Senate seat might be in jeopardy, his Republican allies came to the rescue.

Two political action committees spent more than $400,000 in October boosting Cierpiot and attacking his Democratic opponent, Hillary Shields. Cierpiot’s campaign chipped in $353,000 of its own. The spending swamped Shields, who spent only $48,000.

In the end, Cierpiot, of Lee’s Summit, won Tuesday night by 8 percentage points. He’ll join the Missouri Senate in January.

Observers say the race was just a preview of things to come.

Missouri voters last year overwhelmingly approved caps on donations to state political candidates. Yet no similar limits apply on donations to the types of groups that spent so freely in the Jackson County state Senate campaign.

And critics say that’s where the money — and the political influence — will flow.

“With the limitations on direct contributions, third parties will be a preferred way to advocate for candidates,” said Chuck Hatfield, a Democratic attorney with expertise in state election law.

Last year’s vote to cap donations to candidates “will produce even more involvement by outside groups and consultants,” Hatfield said, “because Missouri allows unlimited corporate contributions to political action committees.”

Voters thought they were limiting the influence of wealthy campaign donors, said John Hancock, a longtime Republican political consultant. But the unintended consequence of last year’s vote, he said, is that the power in Missouri politics has shifted from candidates to outside spending groups.

“You can’t raise as much money, so you don’t have the resources as a candidate to dictate your own campaign,” he said. “Elections are being taken out of the hands of candidates and put into the hands of others.”

Even Cierpiot, who benefited from the outside spending, said the system worked better when contributions to candidates were unlimited but fully disclosed.

“Right now, interest groups that want to get involved will just form PACs, and a candidate has no input,” Cierpiot told The Star shortly before the election.

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

“The old rules were much better,” Cierpiot said. “If I got large check from someone, everyone could see it.”

Opponents of contribution limits long argued that money would find a way into the political system. By trying to limit donations to candidates, they argued, the biggest victim would be transparency.

That’s certainly how things played out in the Jackson County state Senate race.

Cierpiot was supposed to cruise to an easy victory in the 8th District, a GOP stronghold for more than three decades. But Jacob Turk, a perennial Republican candidate for Congress, jumped into the race as an independent and stoked fears among Republicans that he could siphon off votes from Cierpiot and hand the race to Shields.

A political action committee connected to a nonprofit called Missouri Alliance for Freedom spent $110,000 in October attacking Shields.

Just before spending the money, it got a $102,000 check from another GOP-aligned committee called Liberty Alliance.

Liberty Alliance got six-figure checks earlier this year from two GOP mega donors — David Humphreys of Joplin and Stan Herzog of St. Joseph. But its biggest donation by far came in August when a nonprofit called American Democracy Alliance gave $350,000.

Because it’s a nonprofit, American Democracy Alliance is not required to disclose its donors.

All three entities — Missouri Alliance for Freedom, Liberty Alliance and American Democracy Alliance — have ties to the Kansas City law firm of Missouri Republican Party Chairman Todd Graves.

Graves’ law firm successfully sued earlier this year to block portions of the campaign finance law approved by voters last year, including a provision that prohibited transfers between political action committees.

The ban on transfers between PACs was designed to prevent donors from circumventing campaign contribution limits by making it hard to track the source of political donations. However, a federal judge found that the absolute prohibition on PAC-to-PAC transfers was unconstitutional.

The other group that spent big to help Cierpiot was the Missouri Senate Campaign Committee, a PAC that works to elect Republicans to the state Senate. It spent more than $300,000 on the race in October.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, has been an outspoken proponent of strengthening Missouri’s campaign finance laws. That includes campaign contribution limits.

Limits don’t have to lead to a lack of transparency, he said. Lawmakers could pass legislation to improve disclosure laws without undoing donation limits.

“People can spend as much as they want independently,” he said. “And if they give money to someone else, it should be visible for everyone to see so we’ll know who is trying to influence our elections.”

But any changes to government ethics or campaign finance laws will have to come via the initiative petition, Schaaf said.

“Lawmakers don’t want to fix it,” he said, “because they benefit from it.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock