A new law that caps contributions to state political candidates likely will shift the power in Missouri politics to third parties and reduce information about where the donations come from, according to political consultants who point to a race for a state Senate decided last week as an example of the problem.
Republican Mike Cierpiot, of Lee’s Summit, defeated Democrat Hillary Shields in Tuesday’s election for the Missouri Senate seat out of Jackson County. Two political action committees spent more than $400,000 in October to help Cierpiot and attack Shields. Cierpiot’s campaign spent $353,000, while Shields spent only $48,000, The Kansas City Star reported.
Last year, Missouri voters approved caps on donations to state political candidates but the state still allows unlimited corporate contributions to political action committees.
Consultants from both parties say the new law shifted money — and political influence — to outside groups.
“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.
John Hancock, a longtime Republican political consultant, agreed. He said voters thought they were limiting the influence of wealthy campaign donors but the unintended consequence will be shifting influence in Missouri politics 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 said the former system, which allowed unlimited contributions to candidates, was better because the donations had to be fully disclosed.
“Right now, interest groups that want to get involved will just form PACs, and a candidate has no input,” Cierpiot said 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 and the candidate has little influence on how it’s spent.
When Cierpiot’s race became closer than expected, a political action committee connected to a nonprofit called Missouri Alliance for Freedom spent $110,000 in October attacking Shields. Another GOP-aligned committee called Liberty Alliance donated $102,000. Two GOP mega donors — David Humphreys of Joplin and Stan Herzog of St. Joseph — also gave six-figure donations to Liberty Alliance. But its biggest donation 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.
The three groups all have ties to the Kansas City law firm of Missouri Republican Party Chairman Todd Graves. The firm successfully sued earlier this year to block part of the campaign finance law, including a provision that prohibited transfers between political action committees. The ban on transfers was meant 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 prohibition on PAC-to-PAC transfers was unconstitutional.
Another group, the Missouri Senate Campaign Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the state Senate, spent more than $300,000 on the race in October.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, said lawmakers could pass legislation to improve disclosure laws without undoing donation limits. But he said those types of changes will have to come from initiative petitions.
“Lawmakers don’t want to fix it,” he said, “because they benefit from it.”