Missouri campaign expenses reached record heights in 2008

Sunday, December 28, 2008 | 6:56 p.m. CST; updated 9:20 a.m. CST, Monday, December 29, 2008

This article has been modified to note that 23rd District state Rep.-elect Stephen Webber was opposed for the Democratic nomination in the August primary.

COLUMBIA — The 2008 election season saw an incumbent state senator spend more than half a million dollars and lose, a former state representative raise $220,000 in his successful campaign for a return to Jefferson City and a rookie Democrat garner nearly $100,000 to win an uncontested general election.

Any citizen contemplating a future run at elected office in Jefferson City had better consider the costs of conducting a campaign. Candidates this year raised and nearly spent well more than $1 million in state House and Senate races throughout Boone County in what looks like the most expensive election season in the region to date.

The recently elected state legislators and state senator, along with their opponents, submitted final campaign finance reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission on Dec. 4. Those reports can be viewed at the commission’s Web site. They offer a final, comprehensive look not only at how much money went into this year's races, but also where it came from.

"Campaigns are getting more expensive," Ethics Commission Director Joe Carroll said. "Anyone who runs for office can affirm that."

Two state Senate races — including the contest between 19th District State Sen.-elect Kurt Schaefer and the departing Democratic incumbent Chuck Graham — were decided by less than 2 percentage points, while seven races for the Missouri General Assembly were decided by 4 percentage points or less.

Factor in a Missouri presidential ballot tally that took weeks to tabulate and you have a fiercely competitive political landscape with political actors looking for a leg up on their opposition.

"Across the board, the races were extremely competitive," Carroll said. "That made for greater need to raise more money so they could their message out there."

'An impossible number'

The average amount raised by Missouri House candidates in 2004 was $30,896, according to the Center for Money in State Politics. In 2006, that average increased to $34,679. House candidates running in and around Columbia this year raised an average of $110,621.

"It's always upsetting to see how much money elections cost," said Mary Still, a Democrat who soon will become the 25th District state representative. "I was told I'd need to raise $60,000, and I thought that was an impossible number."

Still, who defeated Republican Ryan Asbridge, wound up raising more than $100,000 during her first campaign for elected office. She blames the escalation of political fundraising on the recent repeal of campaign contribution limits. Individuals, political action committees and political party groups now have free rein over how much money they can give. Still said she thinks that exacerbates an already expensive electoral process.

"It makes you work harder to raise money because some individual or candidate committee could just cut a big check to your opponent," Still said. "You never know what's going to happen so you keep at it."

Democrat Chris Kelly defeated Republican incumbent state Rep. Ed Robb in the 24th District, but it was the most expensive state House race in Missouri history. Kelly, a retired judge who served in the House during the 1980s and early 1990s, raised $226,000 to oust Robb, who raised close to $200,000. Although Kelly proved himself a successful fundraiser, he said he hates playing the money game.

"More money means more disinformation for the voters," he said. "People say that they need money to get their message out, but really they need more money so they can slander their opponent."

Kelly supports campaign contribution limits and sponsored Missouri's first campaign finance restrictions in the 1980s. He said he thinks big campaign gifts lead to questionable allegiances.

"When one political operative gives a candidate for state representative $25,000, or $50,000, there's no question what that money is getting them ... votes."

Against contribution limits

Schaefer agrees that it's unfortunate that campaigns cost so much, but he said he would oppose any attempt to reinstate contribution limits.

"I don't know if (repealing limits) changed anything," Schaefer said. "Regardless of where the money comes from ... candidates can still get the money they want."

Schaefer, along with Robb, said he thinks the limits were ineffective. They argue that restrictions simply create more intermediary committees and PACs to distribute campaign cash, instead of just a few single donors. For opponents of the limits, transparency trumps inefficacy.

"I think it's more important for people to see where the money is coming from," Schaefer said.

This year's election saw in influx of large contributions to candidates running in Boone County.

  •  In October, Robb received $50,000 from Rex Sinquefield, the St. Louis businessman and outspoken proponent for privatized education, or school choice.
  •  During the primary season, Graham received an $18,900 contribution from the Graham Leadership Fund. As Election Day neared, he received a $10,000 contribution from then gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon’s campaign committee.
  •  In late October, Schaefer received a $50,000 contribution from the Majority Fund Inc., a committee funded by Gov. Matt Blunt and other prominent Republicans. The Majority Fund also gave Schaefer two separate gifts of $40,000 and $15,000.

Beyond large individual contributions, local campaigns saw an influx of money from outside Boone County. Democrat Rep.-elect Stephen Webber of the 23rd District raised $96,635, even though he had no general election opponent. (He defeated Cande Iveson in the August primary election.) Not even half that money came from inside the district. Of the 725 contributions Webber garnered, only 308, totaling roughly $32,000, came from donors living or working in Columbia.

With more than $5,000 coming from donors in Washington, D.C., and $6,500 from Pennsylvania, Webber concedes his campaign was a little different.

"That’s one thing that made my campaign a little strange," Webber said. "I had a lot of money from Marine buddies who live all over ... friends and family from Pennsylvania gave a lot, too."

Although Schaefer was outspent 2-to-1 by Graham, he still managed to raise $214,069 to upset the long-time Columbia lawmaker. Only $17,610 of that came from donors in Columbia.

About two-thirds of the money Schaefer raised, or $142,875, came from other Republican lawmakers and their committees.

"A lot of outside (contributions) may seem that it alienates voters within the district," Schaefer said.

"But the reality is, if you don't have the money, you can't get your message out."

Schaefer said he thinks benefactors in his party gave to his campaign not because of his popularity but because of their desire to defeat Graham.

"The issue (was), you had a lot of people who will give because they don't want to see someone (like Graham) get re-elected," Schaefer said. "As assistant minority floor leader, (Graham) could have been difficult to legislate with."

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