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Who gave the most? Missouri's top 10 political donors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 9, 2012 - "Show me the money" just might be the unofficial slogan for Missouri political campaigns -- by candidates, political parties and political action committees.

Since 2008, individuals in the Show Me State have been able to contribute as much money as they want to state candidates, party committees and third-party political action committees. They can also give as much as they want to ballot initiatives, which was the case even when the state had contribution limits.

The lack of contribution limits on the state level resulted in a group of "super" donors to candidates and causes during the 2008 and 2010 campaigns -- individuals who have given sums in the hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars to their preferred candidates and causes.

The Beacon and the Investigative News Network have analyzed data from the Missouri Ethics Commission,followthemoney.org, and OpenSecrets.org to determine the top 10  donors from 2008 and 2010. We will follow this up with data from the 2012 campaign as that information becomes available, and many of the top donors from these earlier years are expected to be power players again.

A review of the top 10 donors from 2008 and 2010 has found:

  • Far and away the biggest contributor over this time period was Rex Sinquefield, a retired investor who spent around $14.7 million.
  • Top donors have generally preferred Republicans, although some have also contributed to high-profile Democrats. Eight people on the list gave primarily or completely to Republicans.
  • Three people connected to the Joplin-based TAMKO company – Executive Vice President David Humphreys, Chairman Ethelmae Humphreys and Virginia-based Sarah Humphreys Atkins – were major contributors in Missouri politics. Unlike Sinquefield, who has often given to Democrats, the Humphreys have given almost exclusively to Republicans.
  • Some of the top donors, including William Danforth, Sam Fox, James and John McDonnell, and James and Virginia Stowers, gave big contributions to political action committees aimed at protecting stem cell research.
  • Sam Fox, ranked 8th, would have been higher in the rankings if the contributions from his wife were included in his total.
  • Five of the donors hail from the St. Louis area.

The Beacon computed the data by analyzing electronic state campaign finance records from the Missouri Ethics Commission. Opensecrets.org had data on contributions data to federal candidates, political action committees and party committees. 
Missouri removed limits on campaign contributions in mid-2008. That means that donors can give as much as they want. That is not the case with federal candidates and political parties; for them, donors are limited in what they can give. The one exception: third-party PACs, which allow unrestricted giving. 

Interest in campaign finance has increased since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, which allowed unlimited corporate and special-interest spending on elections. Since then, super PACs, entities that can accept contributions of any size and create independent expenditures to support or oppose a candidate, have become an important part of the political landscape.

Sinquefield emerges as top donor

Since moving back to Missouri in the mid-2000s, Sinquefield has emerged as one of the state’s most high-profile – and controversial – donors. He’s been especially vocal about changing the state’s education system, including eliminating teacher tenure and establishing tax credits for private schools. He’s also supported getting rid of the state’s income tax and replacing it with an expanded sales tax, as well repealing existing earnings’ taxes in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Sinquefield's patterns of giving have changed over time.

In 2008, for instance, Sinquefield mostly gave to 100 political action committees set up after the Missouri Supreme Court threw out campaign contribution limits. Those PACs then gave to candidates from both political parties.

In 2009, Sinquefield moved toward giving directly to candidates: $75,000 to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay; $100,000 to then-House Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville; and $80,000 to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

He continued to give to committees, including organizations such as the House Republican Campaign Committee and Majority Fund, Inc. that help elect GOP legislative candidates.

And in 2010, while Sinquefield still gave to individual candidates and third-party committees, the lion’s share of donations went toward a committee to require a vote on earnings taxes in Kansas City and St. Louis. Sinquefield ended up donating $11.2 million to the successful ballot initiative.

Travis Brown, a lobbyist whose client list includes Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, said in a telephone interview that donation patterns have shifted more toward ballot initiatives than individual candidates. So far this year, for instance, Sinquefield has only given contributions to three candidates – Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, and state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah – while giving much more to third-party organizations and ballot initiatives.

“We also contribute to organizations whose job it is to evaluate that more in detail,” Brown said. “So [earlier this year] you saw $500,000 go to Missouri Club for Growth specifically for evaluating, scoring and surveying all those issues, such as government spending, efficiency of government and education and economic freedom. That’s a natural evolution of his giving.” 

Brown said that Sinquefield tried to stop a ballot initiative to reinstate campaign finance limits, an endeavor pushed by former Missouri Democratic Party chairwoman Susan Montee. That suit became moot, he said, when no signatures were submitted to put the measure up for a public vote.

While Sinquefield has received plenty of praise for his non-political contributions to various philanthropic causes, he has been criticized for his work in the political realm. Education groups have balked at many of his educational initiatives, especially efforts to use state tax credits for private schools. He also sparked a backlash last year when he referenced a column in a central Missouri newspaper that seemed to suggest that the Ku Klux Klan created public education to harm black children. He later apologized for those remarks.

(Sinquefield is a donor to the St. Louis Beacon.)

Mapping out the top donors

Thanks to an application created by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the data used for this report can be easily accessed and analyzed. The Beacon will update this application throughout this year's campaigns to give voters a sense who the largest contributors are to the state's candidates and causes.

A quick look at the top donors are:

1. Rex Sinquefield, retired financier, $14,776,992

2. David Humphreys, president and CEO of TAMKO Building Products, Inc, $2,396,325

3. William Danforth, chancellor emeritus, Washington University, $1,084,483

4. James & Virginia Stowers, founder of American Century Investments, $1,041,623

5. John McDonnell, former chairman and CEO of McDonnell Douglas, $662,433

6. Ethelmae Humphreys, TAMKO's chairman of the board, $659,725

7. Jerry Hall, executive vice president of Jack Henry and Associates, $558,650

8. Sam Fox, founder of the Harbour Group, $554,687

9. James McDonnell III, retired, $483,250

10. Stanley Herzog, Herzog Cos. Inc., $453,775

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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