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Large Donors Provide Koster With Most Of His Campaign Money

Mo. Attorney General Chris Koster.
(Official Portrait, Missouri Attorney General's office)
Mo. Attorney General Chris Koster.

While Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Secretary of State Jason Kander and even some Republicans talk about restoring limits on campaign donations, the man considered the likely Democratic nominee for governor in 2016 is collecting large donations at a frenetic clip.

Just this year, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has raised more than $1.2 million from 68 donations larger than $5,000 apiece, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission’s records. In fact, most of his large donations have been more than $10,000 each.

The large donations make up most of the $1.4 million he has reported raising so far this year, according to  his last major campaign-finance report filed in mid-October. His year-end tally will likely be larger when his next campaign-finance report is due Jan. 15.

Just since Thanskgiving, Koster has collected $105,000 in large donations, making him by far Missouri's biggest beneficiary of donor largess during the holiday season.

Koster makes no apologies.  "We are pleased and grateful for the fund-raising success we've had this year. It shows the depth of support for a fiscally conservative, socially moderate candidate in our state," said his political spokeswoman Rachel Levine.

Koster also has made no secret of his position on campaign donation limits. As a Republican state senator, before switching parties, he voted to eliminate them.

Koster hasn’t made any public statements about Nixon'slatest push to resurrect campaign donation limits. The old limits -- abolished by the General Assembly and Republican Gov. Matt Blunt in 2008 -- restricted statewide candidates to individual donations of no more than $1,350.

A bill pre-filed by state Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, would set the contribution limit for statewide candidates at $10,000 apiece. Kraus joined Nixon, a Democrat, at the governor’s news conference last week to announce his latest effort to restore some limits. Kander, also a Democrat,  backs donation limits but opposes other provisions in Kraus’ bill.

Critics of limits on campaign donations say that limits reduce transparency by prompting donors to find less visible avenues for directing their money to their favored candidates or causes.

For example: When limits were in place, wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield once set up dozens of political action committees, each with a different name, from which to dole out contributions to candidates he supported. Koster was among them.

Sinquefield,  the state’s largest political donor, has said that the public, politicians and the press can now track his political contributions more easily without contribution limits. (Check out the St. Louis Beacon's  Power Players: Missouri's 17 largest political donors from 2008 to 2013.)

Nixon says the lack of limits has been "corrosive" on political campaigns, and gives undue influence and power to a few wealthy donors, at the expense of the general public.

Koster’s large donors hail from a broad spectrum, including unions, fellow lawyers, utility companies and the health-care industry. So far in 2013, his largest donor is Michael Ketchmark, a Kansas lawyer, who gave Koster $75,000 on May 1.

Since Thanksgiving, Koster's biggest donation is $50,000 from St. Louis-based Supporters of Health Research and Treatments,  which includes advocates for embryonic stem-cell research. Over the years, Koster has received generous donations from advocates of stem cell research. In fact, he has cited his support for such research as among the reasons he left the Republican Party in 2007.

Koster, by the way, has been raising money for other Democrats as well. He appears to have become Missouri's most popular headliner for fundraisers this year for Democrats running for the state House and state Senate. Koster has pledged to raise at least $400,000 for legislative candidates through 2016.

Holiday giving includes campaign donations

Koster isn’t the only politician to benefit from campaign contributions during the holiday season, although he is by far the largest beneficiary.

Nixon, who has yet to say if he will run for any other office,  has collected almost $32,000 from two large donations in December: $16,875 from Ketchmark and $15,000 from Peabody Investments Corp., an arm of Peabody Energy.

State Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, has collected $30,000 in large donations in December as he ramps up for his re-election bid in 2014.

This month, St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, has received more than $30,000 in donations of at least $5,001 apiece as he prepares to challenge County Executive Charlie Dooley, a fellow Democrat, in next summer's primary.

Big money is also funding issues campaigns that could be front and center in 2014.

Stand Up Missouri, a campaign committee set up by consumer installment lenders (not payday loan firms), collected $38,000 from one donor in December: World Acceptance Corp., a small-loan consumer finance company. Activists on both sides of the state's issue believe there may be a serious push to get a proposal on the 2014 ballot to restrict the interest rates charged by payday lenders.

Various pro-transportation groups have collected close to $50,000 in large donations so far in December for an expected effort for a ballot proposal to set up a special sales tax to pay for highway, bridge and road improvements around the state.

But the largest single donation in December, so far, is a transfer of $175,000 from Civic Progress – a group made up of executives from the region’s largest companies – to its political-action committee.

Spokesman Tim Beecher said the money wasn’t designated, as yet, for any particular issue.  Civic Progress was simply getting the money in place in preparation for 2014, when its members will make their decisions.

Beecher emphasized that Civic Progress is nonpartisan and that any campaign spending next year will be “strictly for issues. Not for candidates or parties.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.