Missouri Gubernatorial Race Still Cash-Rich

Posted December 3, 2007 at 6:32pm

A state Supreme Court decision requiring incumbent Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R) and attorney general Jay Nixon, his Democratic challenger, to return $5.8 million in now-banned campaign gifts largely is expected to become a symbolic gesture, as party insiders already are scheming to dust off tried-and-true end runs around state campaign finance laws.

“They’ll both end up getting a fair chunk of this money back,” one longtime state Democratic insider said.

Blunt is locked in a high-profile re-election battle with Nixon, who has two failed Senate bids under his belt. Blunt, the son of House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), signed a law early last year tossing out the $1,275 contribution cap by individuals and corporations, unleashing a tidal wave of Publishers Clearinghouse-sized campaign checks to both campaigns.

But last summer, the state Supreme Court threw out the new law, reinstating the old cap and directing the state Ethics Commission to sort through the refund process. Both candidates had until last Monday to apply for a hardship exemption from the commission.

Both declined to seek a waiver, leaving Nixon’s overall fundraising total at $1.4 million and Blunt’s at about $1.6 million. Still, despite the apparent fundraising parity, both campaigns claimed advantage from the state high court ruling.

Oren Shur, a spokesman for Nixon’s campaign, which is refunding $1.3 million to donors, said the ruling “clearly created a problem” for Blunt, who took in roughly $4.5 million in now-banned gifts, by forcing Blunt to solicit small-dollar gifts from “a group of people who don’t seem to like him very much: regular, working Missourians.”

“It heightens the importance of having a strong grass-roots base, which we have,” Shur said. “We now have more than 7,000 contributions of $100 or less.”

But Show-Me-State Republicans counter that although the rules have changed, the game’s the same; that is, raising money and lots of it. Although the state Supreme Court’s decision has forced the governor’s campaign to adjust its approach, Blunt spokesman John Hancock said, “We fully expect to have every resource to get our message out.”

“We have no concerns whatsoever,” Hancock said. “We were executing that plan under that law far better than Attorney General Nixon was. Now, we’re executing a finance plan under this new parameter.”

But the “new parameter,” according to Bob Connor, the executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, is hardly that. In fact, he agrees with many state political insiders from both parties that the decision merely reinstates a “loophole-riddled” law that channels small-dollar gifts through a vast network of local party committees.

“Under Missouri law for governor, you or I can make a contribution to a candidate for $1,275. A political party committee can make one for 10 times that — $12,750. And those political party committees are defined by statute: one for each county, one for each state Senatorial district, one for each legislative district, one for each each circuit judge district …” Connor said. “If someone wanted to give money to 100 of those, [they] could give money to candidates at 10 times $1,275.”

A longtime Democratic Missouri political insider acknowledged that the practice is widespread, claiming that Missouri Republicans have “reduced it to an art form” in some areas of the state.

“If you have a motivated donor they can find ways to get money through the legal process that gets to end up in the right place,” the source said. “What that does, though, is that your political business has to be straightened.”

While the source pointed to Republicans’ practice of the contribution shell game, last year, local news outlets reported that Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign was returning thousands of dollars in party committee-channeled contributions from regional energy provider Ameren Corp.

The source acknowledged that the reinstituted cap does have a “chilling effect” on big-dollar gifts distilled through vast networks of sometimes county-level political committees.

“Some donors just want that kind of attention,” the source said. “It may be technically legal but do I really want [reporters] out there doing stories about how I passed $150,000 through 10 entities?”

Connor said earmarking or coordination between parties and contributors is not allowed, but hinted that the practice is widespread. One longtime state Democratic insider said a common practice, which Republicans have perfected, is to share treasurers among loosely monitored local party committees, a practice a state GOP source denied and Roll Call could not verify.

Still, Connor would not deny that widespread coordination occurs, acknowledging that political money has a way of ultimately winding up in the right bank accounts.

“I can’t say there is [coordination], I can’t say there isn’t.” Connor said. “But you know and I know that [money] has a way of getting where it’s supposed to go.”