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In Missouri's top contests, it's hard to track where the money comes from

Susannah Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri is seeing an unprecedented flood of outside money – some of it the hard-to-trace “dark money” – aimed at the state’s candidates for the U.S. Senate and governor.

But there’s a stark contrast between how the money flows into the two contests, because of the difference in federal and state campaign-finance laws.

Missouri has no campaign-donation limits; so contributors can give as much as they want directly to the candidates. As a result, there’s been little outside spending for or against Republican Eric Greitens or Democrat Chris Koster. It’s not necessary since there are no limits.

All those direct donations do have a downside. Missouri’s candidates, especially those running for governor, often come under fire over some of their donors.

Republican Eric Greitens, for example, has attacked Democrat Chris Koster because most of his large donations of $100,000 or more have come from labor unions. On Friday, Greitens singled out $12,500 that Koster received from the local Planned Parenthood political-action committee.

Koster, in turn, has highlighted some of Greitens’ donors who have given him $500,000 or more, especially since most have been from out of state.

A lot of attention also has been devoted on $1.9 million that Greitens received this summer from a group called "SEALS for Truth;" so far, it's unclear who actually donated that money.

But virtually all of Greitens’ big contributors gave their money before the Aug. 2 primary. Since the primary, few of Greitens’ individual donations have been larger than $50,000.

Governor's race donations coming through third parties

The exception is the group that has contributed the bulk of his money during the last three months: the Republican Governors Association.

In his last report, filed Monday, the RGA had given $8 million of the $9.4 million that Greitens raised during October. That represents about 85 percent his donations since Oct. 1. All told, Greitens has received more than $16 million from the RGA.  Few of his other donations were larger than $10,000. Neither Greitens nor the RGA responded to requests for comment.

The RGA and its counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association, have at times been accused of helping candidates avoid disclosing their donors by having the contributors give money to the associations instead. The RGA and DGA would then write checks directly to the candidate.

Koster, for example, has received $2.7 million from the DGA since Sept. 30. That represents just over half the $5.2 million he reported raising in October. The DGA had given him little money before the primary.

Both associations report their donors quarterly, as required by the IRS. Their last reports covered the three-month period ending Sept. 30. Any donations in October won’t be reported until well after next Tuesday’s election.

A survey of the associations’ IRS reports for the three-month period ending in September found few contributions from the candidates’ earlier donors. Both sides will likely read the post-election filings carefully to see if previous major donors to Greitens or Koster gave money in October to the RGA or the DGA.

During an appearance on St. Louis Public Radio's Politically Speaking podcast earlier this year, Greitens had decried the lack of transparency in campaign donations.

"We've already seen other candidates set up these secretive Super PACs where they don't take any responsibility for what they're funding," Greitens said on the podcast. "...Because that's how the game has always been played. I've been very proud to tell people: 'I'm stepping forward. And you can see every single one of our donors. Because we're proud of our donors and we're proud of the campaign that we are running.' "

Koster used to oppose campaign-donation limits, but now has changed his mind, largely because of the rise in large donations. Koster accused Greitens of trying to hide the sources of his support. "I think when the smoke clears and we actually figure out where his money's coming from, we may see as much as $7 or $8 million that comes from one individual in northern California," Koster said.


Outside money is major factor in Senate race

Federal election restrictions limit the individual donations to Missouri’s two major U.S. Senate candidates -- Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Jason Kander – to $2,700 per election. Political action committees can donate up to $5,000 a year.


Independent groups can spend as much as they want on a candidate’s behalf, but they violate federal law if there is any sort of coordination with the candidate.

The Federal Election Commission’s latest estimate puts the outside spending for Missouri’s U.S. Senate race at more than $43 million. That’s not just TV ads. In includes but fliers and any other activity that outside groups report.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending, has pegged the outside aid at $17 million on behalf of Blunt and close to $10 million for Kander. Some of the latest reports estimate that the pro-Blunt spending is outflanking the pro-Kander outside spending by about two-to-one in the last couple weeks.

Much of that spending is coming from groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its GOP counterparts, such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee. As with the governors’ groups, those campaign operations only have to report their spending quarterly. So the actual amounts they spend on the Missouri Senate race may not be known until well after next Tuesday’s election.

Reporter Jason Rosenbaum contributed information for this article.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.