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Out-of-state donors fuel Missouri GOP candidates running for statewide offices

A white man wearing a white shirt and blue vest stands in front of a large American flag and behind a podium reading "BILL EIGEL FOR GOVERNOR."
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Bill Eigel has faced accusations that his gubernatorial campaign used deceptive fundraising tactics, drawing a rebuke from former President Trump’s lawyers. The firm behind that strategy also raised cash for attorney general hopeful Will Scharf.

Becoming a registered Republican was the worst decision B.J. Adams says he ever made.

Adams, a resident of Burlington, North Carolina, isn’t upset with GOP policies. And he loves former President Donald Trump.

But when the 87-year-old conservative who grew up a Democrat finally switched his party registration, he said it unleashed a torrent of fundraising pleas that on one day this year included 66 emails asking for money.

“Definitely my advice would be don’t do it,” Adams said in an interview with The Independent, “because all you’ll do is get a bunch of dumb-ass requests for donations.”

Some solicitations Adams received – and responded to – were from Missouri, though that wasn’t always clear.

His name is among 33,408 donations from individuals reported to the Missouri Ethics Commission this year by Believe in Life and Liberty, or BILL PAC, which is backing state Sen. Bill Eigel’s campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He also shows up on the report for Eigel’s official campaign committee, which lists 6,914 individual donations this year.

Adams is also listed as a donor to Will Scharf, a Republican candidate for Missouri attorney general who has reported 962 donations from individuals this year.

In all there are 185 individuals who gave to both Eigel and Scharf, averaging nine contributions per donor.

How nearly 200 individuals from around the country landed on reports for Eigel and Scharf has an easy explanation – both used Targeted Victory, a Virginia consulting firm, to contact donors nationwide.

The firm has drawn criticism over its tactics, including a scathing letter from Trump’s campaign demanding it stop using the former president’s name, image and likeness in fundraising pitches that appear designed to obscure where the money is actually going.

The number of individual donations for Eigel, BILL PAC and Scharf far surpass those of any other announced or potential candidate seeking one of the five statewide constitutional offices on next year’s ballot. Missouri residents, however, gave only a tiny fraction of those individual donations, an analysis by The Independent shows.

More than 90% of the listed individual donations for Eigel and Scharf’s campaign are from people living outside Missouri.

For BILL PAC, almost 99% of the donations were from outside the state.

Eigel did not return text and telephone messages seeking comment for this story.

In an interview, Scharf distanced himself from Targeted Victory’s controversial tactics, saying the wording of his solicitations was not deceptive and all of his fundraising appeals stated upfront who he was and the office he was seeking.

“I’ve tried to reach out to conservatives here in Missouri and around the country through a lot of different means,” Scharf said, “including using social media, emails and text messages to get people involved and engaged with our campaign.”

Adams said the solicitations were often emails or text messages making a statement about a national issue and asking for support in a petition or a survey.

“I’d fill that survey and then you’d have to give them a donation or it wouldn’t go through,” Adams said. “I thought, okay. I’ll give them $1, sometimes $2 or something like that, to get them off my back.”

That, Adams said, is when you find out who gets the money.

“If you gave them a donation, then it would come back and say, it was given to somebody, you know, (House Majority Leader Steve) Scalise or somebody else,” Adams said. “And you don’t know where it went. And so I assume that that’s exactly what’s happened in these two cases.”

Not any more, he said.

“I’ve just washed my hands of them,” Adams said. “So you won’t get anything else like that from me because I’m not gonna give them any more.”

Will Scharf speaks at his campaign kickoff event on Jan. 31, 2023, in St. Louis
Will Scharf speaks at his campaign kickoff event on January 2023 in St. Louis

The connection

Neither Scharf nor Eigel’s campaign committee have reported payments to Targeted Victory. BILL PAC has reported spending just over $300,000 with the firm during 2023.

Scharf said he was uncertain why the company isn’t on his second quarter report but said it is likely because the campaign had not received a bill yet.

“As a first time candidate, we’ve used a lot of different tools to reach out to as many people as possible,” Scharf said. “We’ve got at this point tens of millions of impressions on Twitter, tens of thousands of impressions on Facebook and Instagram. We’re using every means at our disposal to get the word out about our campaign.”

Targeted Victory is also one of 10 GOP consulting firms put on notice in March to be careful how they use Trump’s name and image in fundraising appeals.

And Eigel specifically has been warned that his appeals could be crossing that line.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that in August, Eigel’s campaign sent a solicitation that it needed 500,000 names to “Stand with Trump.” After a potential donor clicks through to join the petition, the final step to register a name is a required donation to benefit Eigel for Missouri, his campaign committee, identified in small type near the box stating the amount of the donation.

The newspaper quoted a donor from Arizona who had no idea she had given $10 to Eigel’s PAC and didn’t know who Eigel was.

The story drew a rebuke from Trump, who through a lawyer sent a “cease and desist this unauthorized use immediately” to BILL PAC and Targeted Victory the newspaper reported.

Scharf said he doesn’t engage in that type of deceptive fundraising activity.

In an April 19 solicitation on his campaign letterhead, Scharf asked for money by invoking the controversy generated by ProPublica’s investigation of luxury travel provided to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas by major GOP donor Harlan Crow.

That solicitation stated that “the left and their allies are working overtime to smear his good name, all because he believes in the U.S. Constitution and defends it every day.”

Scharf’s committee received 52 donations that day, generating $995.50.

On June 21, Scharf received 98 contributions totaling $1,054, including $2 from Adams.

On that day, he said, he appeared on the radio talk show hosted by Mark Levin and discussed Trump’s most recent federal indictment.

The solicitation sent that day, he said, introduced him as a Levin-endorsed MAGA candidate for Missouri attorney general and told potential donors that he had just released an opinion piece on the “sham indictment.”

When recipients clicked on the link, they were offered an opportunity to read it before contributing, Scharf said. No one had to give money to know who they were supporting or to get any information offered, Scharf said.

“We tried to be very, very careful about that sort of thing,” Scharf said.

Missouri State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, announces his bid for governor on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, at the St. Charles County Regional Airport in Portage Des Sioux, Mo. The Air Force veteran and two-term state senator joins the Republican primary alongside Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe. A member of the legislature’s conservative caucus, Eigel has been critical of Senate GOP leadership on various issues.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, announces his bid for governor on Sept. 8 at the St. Charles County Regional Airport in Portage Des Sioux. The Air Force veteran and two-term state senator joins the Republican primary alongside Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe. A member of the legislature’s conservative caucus, Eigel has been critical of Senate GOP leadership on various issues.

How it works

Once a donor responds to a solicitation, it unleashes a flood of additional requests, said John Otis of Dickinson, Texas.

Otis remembers giving to Eigel. His first donation, $1, was on May 10. He gave two more times in May, and twice again in June.

When he agrees with the message – and the cash demand isn’t too much – Otis said he’s willing to help.

“I’m not trying to donate to him per se,” Otis said. “I’d do that for any good cause, I’d give a dollar, you know, to sign a petition, and I have to include a donation to do that and Bill Eigel puts them out massively.”

He does not remember donating to Scharf, but said he doesn’t doubt that he did so.

“If he put out a petition and I didn’t know who it was and I read something that I really, really agree with, I’m going to be inclined to want to sign it,” Otis said.

Otis did not realize, however, that the 44 donations he made to BILL PAC would also help Eigel’s effort to become governor. Otis’ first donation was on Jan. 19. On several days he gave more than once, including seven donations to BILL PAC on April 10.

“That’s where he masked them,” Otis said when told the purpose of the Believe in Life and Liberty PAC. “I didn’t know it was him. I’m gonna stop, honestly. I’m not going to give any more to his petitions. I’ve done more than my part for the cause.”

Like most of the donors who are on all three reports, Otis gave only once to Scharf.

While on the telephone with The Independent, Otis received a text solicitation that he said is typical in its urgency.

“Mount Rushmore demolished?” he read. “Thousands have signed a woke petition to destroy Mount Rushmore. Major GOP comeback needed now!”

The text asks the recipient to click a response button to add their name to the petition. It turned out to be a solicitation for donations to U.S. Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Texas.

Otis said he likes Ellzey but that the fate of Mount Rushmore “is not going to make or break our country” and he would not donate for that request.

Ellzey — like Eigel, BILL PAC and Scharf — is a client of Targeted Victory, spending almost $500,000 with the consulting firm in the first five months of the year, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Told that Trump is upset over the use of his name and image by consulting firms like Targeted Victory, Otis said that many of the solicitations he gets invoke Trump’s name.

“A lot of these people take advantage of Trump,” Otis said. “They use his name, like an endorsement, and they use it for themselves. And I agree that’s what’s going on in some cases.”

The information he would like, Otis said, is to know whether his “signatures” on various petitions actually go anywhere. One reason he participates is a hope that the petitions will be used for more than knowing whether he is still willing to give.

“No one else is asking me to give my voice,” he said. “I mean, this is an opportunity. And it would be nice if they are collecting those petitions and presenting them to Congress or wherever they could, or put it out in the media and to the public.”

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in favor of bills that would, in part, ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in favor of bills that would, in part, ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Jan. 18 during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

The reaction

Eigel is running against Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft in the GOP primary. Scharf is challenging Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey.

In a news release after delivering second quarter fundraising reports, Eigel used the large number of individual donations to claim broad support for his campaign.

“The purpose of the exploratory phase of this campaign was to see if sufficient support existed for our message of a stronger Missouri,” Eigel said in the release. “The answer is a resounding yes – there is overwhelming support around Missouri for a proven conservative outsider.”

Thousands of small donations from outside the state don’t say anything about how Missourians view the candidates, Eigel’s rivals said.

Consultants have offered to help his gubernatorial campaign engage in a nationwide hunt for money, Ashcroft said in an interview with The Independent.

“I have been approached about doing this and we declined,” he said. “We felt like when we were going to be soliciting money, we needed to be upfront with the people about how we were soliciting, and what we’re going to be using their money for.”

The methods seem deceptive and manipulative, he said. Using a national issue that has a Missouri angle is an acceptable practice, he said, but not in a way that doesn’t reveal until the end, “in really fine print,” who is actually being supported.

“I’m not willing to compromise my character for an election victory,” Ashcroft said.

Mike Hafner, a political consultant advising both Kehoe and Bailey, likened many of the solicitations to bait-and-switch retail advertising.

“These fundraising schemes should be illegal and should be investigated,” Hafner said.

The solicitations abuse the trust of donors, Hafner said, and target people who often can’t afford to give.

“Anyone who has scammed elderly individuals disabled individuals, or fixed income individuals for contributions for themselves by dishonesty using conservative causes, or President Trump’s name is shameful and they should refund every one of these donors immediately,” Hafner said.

Of the BILL PAC contributions this year, 27,219 were reported with “retired” listed as the donor’s occupation and another 123, including 30 disabled veterans, were listed as not working due to their disability. For Eigel’s campaign committee, 5,680 donations had “retired” in the occupation line and 16 were from people not working due to a disability.

Scharf’s list of individual donations for this year includes 715 contributions with “retired” in the occupation line. None are from individuals who are not working due to a disability.

Fundraising practices that make donors work to be sure where their money is going aren’t new, said James Harris, a Republican political consultant who does not have a client in the governor or attorney general’s race.

The $63 million raised by the College Republican National Committee in 2004 is a notorious example, Harris said.

“In the mail they would do all this prospecting of older people, we are going to fight for X, or fight for Y,” Harris said. “They would leave off the word ‘College’ and people thought it was for the Republican National Committee.”

The survey solicitation seems to be the hot new thing in political fundraising from small-dollar donors.

“I think people ran to it because it is the shiny new object, thinking it will be easy,” Harris said.

During President Barack Obama’s initial campaign in 2008, Democrats proved they were far more adept at organizing supporters through technology. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign also excelled at raising money in small amounts from dedicated supporters.

Republicans caught up, and then surpassed the competition, thanks to the fervor of Trump’s supporters, Harris said. And the consulting firms handling the solicitations built lists they could then sell to other candidates.

The only truly successful small-donor politicians are those who are instantly recognizable, Harris said.

“If you are running for the General Assembly, absolutely not,” Harris said. “If you are a bomb-throwing conservative and will say potentially anything, maybe. But really for it to be effective you should have your own brand or name ID.”

Jason Roe, a Michigan-based consultant working for Ashcroft’s campaign, said the tactic inflates donor numbers but can cost more than it brings in.

“Creating an artificial fundraising bump that consumes a lot of our bandwidth and probably is misleading in its messaging is not really worth the price of admission,” Roe said.

One problem is making a message standout and get a lot of responses, he said.

“When you do digital fundraising, it tends to get a little hysterical and the message doesn’t always match the messenger,” Roe said. “You know, in Eigel’s case, he’s about performance conservatism, so everything about him is theatrics, not effectiveness. So you know, I’m sure the history of hysteria in his messaging matches his behavior.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.