Why you should care
Because dark money is flooding Missouri. Will this be where voters finally stop the tide?
When her 18-year-old son Seth was planning to attend the Missouri Senate race debate in St. Louis earlier this month, Gail White invited her first-time voter and his uncle to discuss politics over a family dinner. They spoke of taxes and pre-existing conditions, of military spending and immigration. But by the end, Gail wondered if it even mattered what they thought about these issues. She had a creeping suspicion that money, not individual voters in families like hers, was the real decider in elections. “Can a candidate win if they don’t have big money behind them?” she wondered.
She isn’t alone. Her worries fit in with Missouri’s emergence as the epicenter for dark spending in recent elections, including campaign contributions funneled through political action committees that aren’t legally required to disclose their donors. So far, more than $65 million has flooded into the Missouri Senate race, one of the biggest targets for outside spending in the midterms ($67 million has been spent in the Florida Senate race). That pile of cash is among a set of triggers galvanizing an unprecedented debate in Missouri on dark money that’s shadowing one of the most competitive Senate races in the nation.
Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley are dead even in polls while serving as proxies for the national fight to control the U.S. Senate after November. Their campaign ads play relentlessly on radios and television sets. But just five months ago, Missouri witnessed the resignation of its former governor, Eric Greitens, after a court ordered him to hand over documents related to A New Missouri, a dark-money nonprofit that he was accused of illegally coordinating with. And just last week, Hawley’s campaign was accused of illegally coordinating expenditures with the National Rifle Association, as the same consultant was booking TV ad time on the same day for Hawley and the NRA. (Hawley campaign spokeswoman Kelli Ford calls the Federal Election Commission complaint “frivolous” and politically motivated, coming from a gun control group.)
It’s too much money.
Gail White, Missouri voter
And Missouri residents will consider a ballot this November called Clean Missouri Amendment 1, which would forbid the state legislature from allowing unlimited campaign contributions and prohibit anonymous donors if approved. Already, more than 340,000 Missourians have signed a petition to force the Amendment 1 ballot initiative to a vote on the statewide ballot in November. Talk to White, a moderate Democrat whose son leans conservative, and what you hear is shock at the way her state is being overwhelmed by undisclosed outside spending.
“It’s too much money,” she says.
That perfect storm of focus could make Missouri an important indicator for whether average voters can be convinced to care about campaign finance reform, a rallying issue for progressives and liberals ever since the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC ushered in an unfettered era of concealed campaign cash. More than three-fourths of Americans say there should be limits on campaign spending by individuals and corporations, according to a Pew Research poll from March, while nearly two-thirds believe laws could be crafted to reduce the influence of money in politics.
The Show-Me State isn’t the only one where campaign finance reform is a major talking point these elections. The issue is prominent in Montana, also home to a competitive Senate race that’s seen $34 million in outside spending. “Montanans have a long history with outsiders coming in and buying elections,” says Chris Meagher, communications director for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. In the 19th century, “copper kings” used their fortunes to influence Montana politics, so much so that local lawmakers in the early 20th century banned donations from corporations, a topic covered in a Kimberly Reed documentary released this summer called Dark Money. In North Dakota, South Dakota and New Mexico, voters will consider ballot initiatives to review political spending and ethics complaints.
But the sheer scale of outside spending in Missouri, coupled with the way dark money has shaped its politics in the past few months and could transform it through the Amendment 1 ballot initiative, makes the state a bellwether for the national debate on the subject.
It’s telling that, at the height of the frenzy over the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation debate, when McCaskill said she wouldn’t vote for the nominee, her reasons weren’t the sexual assault allegations made against him. Instead, she said she was opposed to Kavanaugh based on his support for dark money she believed would “give free reign” to donors and foreign governments to influence elections. One of Kavanaugh’s favorite court decisions to quote is Buckley v. Valeo, which ruled that restricting the speech of some — i.e., the wealthy — in order to raise the voice of others is “wholly foreign” to the First Amendment. It was the same decision that Justice Anthony Kennedy, Kavanaugh’s predecessor and mentor, quoted in his Citizens United majority opinion in 2010.
Dark money groups that do not have to disclose their donors have spent more than $7 million on the Missouri race so far, with the attacks flying from both sides. The difference is that Republicans “have no desire to change the system,” argues Chris Hayden, a Democratic operative who worked on Senate races for McCaskill in 2012 and Jason Kander in 2016. “Democrats are willing to come to the table,” he says. Hayden now is spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC that discloses its donors — but is considered a “gray money” group because it can take in donations from entities that do not disclose their donors.
It’s true Democrats have proposed fixes federally, including the DISCLOSE Act, which would require groups spending money in federal elections to disclose their donors. And while some Republicans have supported reform efforts — Missouri State Sen. Rob Schaaf, a Republican and Donald Trump supporter, also backs Amendment 1 — many conservative voters have mixed feelings about attempts to end dark money spending. “Both sides get money; it doesn’t really matter,” says Jonathan Hertlein, a tennis instructor in Missouri. “If I want to contribute $10 or Bill Gates wants to contribute $10 million, it should be allowed either way,” adds Paul Harris, a St. Louis libertarian who views unlimited campaign spending as a constitutional right and plans to vote for Hawley in the Senate race.
It’s an issue that hovered over the Senate debate. On a chilly mid-October day, hundreds of voters huddled under coats and sat on folding chairs to watch the event play out over projectors in downtown St. Louis. When Hawley insisted that donors held no sway over him, the liberal-leaning crowd laughed skeptically, with one shouting, “What about the NRA?” and another adding incredulously, “Doesn’t owe anything?”
Essentially “one family” funded Hawley’s campaign for attorney general, McCaskill said pointedly, noting that a $4 million donation from billionaire David Humphreys accounted for nearly three-fourths of his total fundraising in 2016. Meanwhile, Hawley talked about his opponent’s dozen years in the Senate and accused her of no longer voting for Missouri values. “It’s time we had someone in Washington who isn’t part of the old battles, who doesn’t owe anything to anybody,” he said. It’s heated sparring between the candidates. But in many ways, their words don’t matter. After all, the number of people who will see the debate pales in comparison to those who will have seen or heard the ads paid for by outside groups and their concealed donors. Once again, money talks — and in Missouri, it often talks off the record.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Missouri ’s Senate race was the top recipient of outside money in the midterm elections. In the most recent figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, Florida’s Senate race overtook the top spot.