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As Missouri candidates return to the campaign trail, McCaskill calls for change

Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio

Ordinarily, candidates for governor would go out of their way to publicize a major fundraising event that attracted 400 people.

But not so Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, the state’s only major Democratic candidate for governor, who opted to quietly hold the $500-a-couple (and up) gathering this week at the Renaissance Grand hotel downtown.

Before the speeches got underway, a spokesman said, a local pastor offered a prayer for the families of state Auditor Tom Schweich, who killed himself on Feb. 26, and his spokesman Spence Jackson, who apparently committed suicide a few days ago.

The low-key nature of Monday’s event appeared to illustrate the delicate atmosphere engulfing the state's politics at the moment as public officials decide when and how to ramp up their campaign activities in the wake of the dual tragedies.

Former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, the only major Republican who’s announced a bid for governor, returned to the campaign trail over the weekend with stops in southwest Missouri.

In a statement issued late Friday, before Jackson’s death was known, Hanaway said, “My campaign for governor has been suspended out of respect for Auditor Schweich’s memory and service to our state and nation. While there will not be an end to the time when we mourn for Tom, I am again talking with Missourians about a positive vision for better jobs, better schools and better opportunities.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who won’t be back on the ballot until 2018, observed Tuesday that the two suicides have prompted politicians in both parties to take stock.

“I think all of us have paused and really reflected on what politics has become,’’ she said in an interview. “My family has been victimized by very tough and unfair political advertising in a number of campaigns. We all got to the point where we just thought it was part of this business. It doesn’t have to be and people need to react with their votes.”

McCaskill emphasized that she believed that Schweich and Jackson “had serious mental issues’’ that had little to do with politics and that contributed to their decisions to commit suicide.

But that said, she added, “If their deaths are going to stand for anything, they should stand for the notion that we can do better and that people ought to demand better.”

McCaskill renews call for donation limits

In McCaskill’s opinion, one way to improve the political climate in Missouri would be to restore some form of campaign donation limits.  The state had donation restrictions from 1995-2008, before they were eliminated by the GOP-controlled General Assembly and then-Gov. Matt Blunt, also a Republican.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill at a hearing at Washington University with more than a dozen experts in medicine and geriatrics 3/31/15
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill at a hearing Tuesday in St. Louis.

McCaskill reaffirmed her pledge, first made in January, that she would lead an initiative-petition drive to get a campaign-donation proposal on the 2016 ballot.

McCaskill said she was seeking Republican allies to help organize and bankroll the effort. She also is conducting some national public-interest groups.

About 160,000 signatures from registered voters would be needed to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

McCaskill contended that the lack of limits has contributed to the nastiness in state politics. Among other things, McCaskill pointed  to the huge donations by financier Rex Sinquefield to single-handedly finance some causes — such as the end of state income taxes. He also has given sizeable sums — including $1 million -- to some candidates who have never before run for office.

“I’m tired of living in a state where a billionaire controls state government. I just don’t think that’s what Missourians want,” she said.

McCaskill's observations were made Tuesday, which also marked the fundraising deadline for the next round of campaign-finance reports, due April 15.

In the case of Koster, his report will be the first one he has filed since October.  His tally from Monday’s event will receive close attention from political insiders, because Koster earlier had been outraising his Republican rivals, including Schweich and Hanaway.

It will be up to Schweich’s campaign committee to decide what to do with the $1.3 million or more that the late auditor had amassed in his campaign account. The money could be distributed to other candidates, or returned to donors.

Koster has called for some campaign-finance changes. But he has opposed donation limits, contending that contribution restrictions will simply prompt donors to come up with other ways to get money to favored candidates. Koster had collected generous donations from Sinquefield in previous campaigns, but the financier has since been backing Hanaway for governor.

McCaskill said she won’t be dissuaded by Koster’s different views on campaign donation limits. “He’s going to have to make some decisions around that,” she said. “We’ll leave that up to him.”

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