JEFFERSON CITY — Most Missourians cannot afford luxury cars, five-star dinners and hillside mansions. They also can't give politicians lots of money for their campaigns — even if there aren't any rules limiting how much can be donated.
Earlier this year, the Legislature repealed the state's caps on donations to political candidates.
Backers of the change said it would increase transparency by decreasing the incentive for politicians to obscure the origin of their donations in an effort to skirt existing limits. Critics worried that it would open the doors to huge donations, drive up the cost of running for office and make politicians more beholden to the financiers.
An analysis by The Associated Press of campaign donations reported to the Missouri Ethics Commission shows that repealing the fundraising limits has allowed for some isolated big checks but hasn't affected most donors because they were not giving as much as they could legally anyway.
The AP examined donations contained on finance reports covering July 25 through Sept. 30 that were filed by the 10 major party candidates seeking statewide office in November.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof, in the month before contribution limits were repealed, reported that his campaign's median donation was $250. That means Hulshof received as many checks or in-kind contributions that exceeded $250 as fell below that mark.
The month following that, in which there were no fundraising limits, Hulshof's average donation - buoyed by several six-figure checks - almost doubled from $1,524 to $2,925. But the median donation stayed exactly the same - $250.
It's not just a Republican phenomenon.
The average donation for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon nearly tripled once the fundraising cap was removed - rising from $556 to $1,571. But Nixon's median donation actually dropped from $250 to $100 once the donation limits were lifted.
Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that shows the campaigns are trying to recruit broader funding bases and get voters invested in a candidate emotionally, intellectually and financially. That means recruiting ordinary donors who can't contribute large sums.
"They are following the model of candidates at the presidential level, and that's increase the donor base," Robertson said.
The idea is that voters who put their money behind an office-seeker are more likely to stick with the person.
"A financial commitment marries you to the candidate a little bit," Robertson said.
Missouri's fundraising caps were repealed Aug. 28. Before then, individuals were limited to giving $1,350 per election to statewide candidates, $675 to Senate candidates and $325 to House candidates. Now that there are limitless donations, those exceeding $5,000 must be reported to the Ethics Commission within 48 hours.
Unrestrained by fundraising caps, this election season has seen big checks from wealthy business leaders, political activists and special interest groups flow into the coffers of Missouri politicians.
Just more than half of the major party candidates for statewide office have landed at least one six-figure check, and Republican attorney general candidate Michael Gibbons landed one donation in October that exceeded $1 million.
Not surprisingly, both governor candidates claimed their largest single donation just days into limitless fundraising. Hulshof got $600,000 from the Republican Governors Association the day caps were removed, and Nixon received $600,000 from the Democratic Governors Association about a week later.
So limitless fundraising has been a boon for political committees and an opportunity for the wealthy.
But like a strike among workers building Jaguar sports cars, it has not really affected average Missourians willing to commit their dollars to helping a favored candidate get into office.
In fact, some of the smallest donations reported by the 10 Republicans and Democrats running for five statewide offices have come since the limits were removed.
Larry McCoy, whose hometown was not listed, gave Nixon 36 cents on Sept. 4. Teresa Arndt, of Sikeston, sent Hulshof $20 on Sept. 30. Dorothy Knierim, of Rock Port, gave $10 on Sept. 26 to GOP treasurer candidate Brad Lager. Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan on Sept. 10 received $1 from Ian Koski, of Arlington, Va.
That's not exactly the massive donations some anticipated by repealing the fundraising limits.
It's possible that the campaigns have received even smaller donations. They need to keep track of the name, address and employer of those who donate more than $25, but only those who give more than $100 must be included on itemized reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
In the two-month period examined by the AP, the smallest donations for most of the statewide office candidates were accepted after the fundraising caps had been removed. For all but three officer-seekers, the median donation dropped when donations were not limited.
Missouri's politicians have been able to land more money without fundraising limits. But like the upgrade of any luxury item, for most people — whether consumers or campaign donors — the change really doesn't matter.