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Missouri's Senate contest is favorite destination for outside money

Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley and Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill
Durrie Bouscaren & Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri’s U.S. Senate contest is attracting more outside money – at least $25 million so far –  than any other Senate race in the country.

More than half of the money is being spent by a conglomerate of Republican-leaning groups seeking to help the state’s GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

The rest is mainly coming from a political-action committee tied to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat aiding the incumbent, Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Documents from area TV stations, posted on the Federal Communications Commission website, indicate that the groups are spending close to $500,000 a week just in the St. Louia area to air ads attacking or praising McCaskill and Hawley.

Overall, the pace appears to be ahead of the record-setting spending by outside groups in the 2016 Senate contest where Republican incumbent Roy Blunt narrowly defeated Democratic rival Jason Kander.

Missouri’s Senate contest isn’t the only beneficiary of outside help. Several groups who don’t have to disclose their donors also are contributing large sums to Missouri’s ballot-issue campaigns.

Money pouring in

The Senate candidates’ campaigns are restricted to individual donations of no more than $2,700 per election. They can receive no more than $5,000 per election from a political action committee.

Those financial limits are a key reason why outside money can be pivotal.

So far this year, at least $22 million in outside help for McCaskill and Hawley is documented by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which is relying on the latest Federal Election Commission reports.

But that tally does not include new money announced late last week. Three conservative groups – including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and America First Policies – announced at least $3 million would be spent on additional ads to help Hawley.

Even without that new money, the Center for Responsive Politics had calculated that Missouri’s two major Senate contenders were the nation’s top recipients of outside money – underscoring its importance for both parties. Senate Republicans currently have a two-seat edge in the 100-seat chamber.

However, the McCaskill and Hawley campaigns contend that the out-of-state aid tally is a lot higher than $25 million, when “dark money’’ groups are taken into account.

“Dark money’’ refers, in general, to groups that are not identifying their donors. Many of them are classified by the IRS as 501c4s, a type of nonprofit group that is allowed to spend up to 49 percent of its money on political activities.

But that spending can be hard to track, because such groups do not have to report their donors, or how they spend their money. Some states do require 501c4s to report their finances if they are involved in campaigns in that state, but Missouri isn’t one of them.

The Missouri Ethics Commission, which monitors campaign-finance matters, recently issued an advisory opinion that requires a 501c4 group to register with the commission and disclose its spending and donors if it can be proven that the group is raising money for a Missouri candidate or cause. But coming up with that proof may be tricky. A formal complaint would have to be filed with the commission, which then could instruct its staff to investigate.


Senate GOP and Democratic leaders involved

Schumer’s political-action committee, called the Senate Majority PAC, is a “SuperPAC’’ that does report its donors, many of whom are wealthy individuals. But some of the donors have been groups that don’t identify their own contributors.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has ties to a rival nonprofit group, called One Nation, that does not identify its donors. One Nation has spent millions on ads to help Hawley, but nonpartisan tracking organizations aren’t sure how much.

McCaskill calculates that the total outside money spent in Missouri is already more than $30 million, and most of it is for Hawley.

“I’m guesstimating before this campaign is over, 80 percent of the money that is spent for Josh Hawley will come from behind the curtain,” the senator said. “Dark money. No one will ever know who made those expenditures.” 

Meanwhile, Hawley calculates Schumer’s group has spent or reserved more than $23 million in ad purchases in Missouri.

He is accusing McCaskill of “attempting to skirt campaign-finance law,” by signaling to outside groups “what ads to run and how to do it.”

Hawley points to news reports noting the similarities of her jabs on her web sites and what ads her allied groups are running.

She disputes that charge, and emphasizes her longstanding support for a Senate bill that would require outside groups involved in any party’s campaigns to report their donors and their spending. McCaskill notes that Hawley has not called for such disclosure.

“I’ve said over and over again publicly ‘this door swings both ways,’ “ she said. “I recommend to everyone ignore every ad that you can’t figure out who paid for it.”

Candidates can’t control ad messages

In congressional contests, candidates can run afoul of the law if it is proven that they coordinated with the outside groups. But that’s rarely been documented.

That means outside groups control their own messages, which can cause problems for a candidate, said former Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock, who’s a political consultant.

“I hate to see campaigns and candidates lose control of their message,” he said.And in the long run, I don’t think that’s healthy for democracy.”

So far, most of the outside money in Missouri’s Senate race has been spent on attack ads. Those against Hawley accuse him of protecting donors and highlight his involvement in a lawsuit that would end insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

The anti-McCaskill ads have primarily attacked her family’s wealth and her husband’s business interests. The most recent ads have emphasized the federal subsidies for low-income housing he has helped develop.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s new ad is attacking McCaskill for her vote against the federal tax cut package that passed last year, which she says was skewed to the wealthy.

McConnell’s One Nation group is paying for the pro-Hawley TV ad – airing widely in the St. Louis area – that praises him for working to help rape victims.

Outside groups bankrolling ballot measures

There are seven proposed ballot measures on the November ballot in Missouri – including a gas-tax increase, legalizing medical marijuana, increasing the state’s minimum wage and imposing more ethics restrictions on lawmakers.

And outside money is pouring in there too.

Clean Missouri, which is a wide-ranging ethics and redistricting proposal known as Amendment 1, has obtained donations from several sources.

Its biggest chunk of money is $250,000 that it received from a group called the MOVE Ballot Fund. The MOVE group had received $300,000 a few days earlier from a group called “The Open Society Policy Center,” which is tied to prominent progressive philanthropist George Soros.

Clean Missouri’s leaders say the donation shouldn’t be viewed as “dark money’’ because it could be easily determined to come from Soros’ network.

Republicans opposing Clean Missouri have set up a rival group called “Missourians First.” That group is a 527, named for a provision in the IRS code that allows that Missourians First to delay any disclosure of its donors.

Meanwhile, another philanthropist – Charles Feeney – is connected to other money that has gone to Clean Missouri and Raise Up Missouri, the group leading the effort to increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour. Raise Up Missouri has also received about $1 million from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based 501(c)(4) that declined to reveal its donors while giving to a number of a Democratic PACs across the country.

Both groups have received in-kind help from a group called the 2018 Ballot Fund. That group had received a $400,000 donation from the Civic Participation Action Fund.  The fund is part of Feeney’s philanthropic network.

Campaign finance lawyer Brad Ketcher is the treasurer for the 2018 Ballot Fund. He said the in-kind efforts include outreach to refligious groups who support the two ballot measures.

Ketcher said that there is no intent to hide the source of the donations. He added that he’s the person who sought the advisory opinion from the Missouri Ethics Commission that perhaps could force some nonprofit 501c4 groups to identify their donors.

Reporter Jason Rosenbaum contributed information for this article.

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter:@jmannies

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