The most expensive race for governor in the country is going on in Missouri. In fact, it's not even close: The more than $50 million spent in Missouri's governor race is more than the combined spending in the Indiana and North Carolina gubernatorial contests, according to the National Institute of Money in State Politics.
With no donation limits in Missouri, Democrat Chris Koster and Republican Eric Greitens can pull in checks of unlimited size from donors. Much of the six and seven-figure checks the two candidates received is going toward TV ads, including a memorable one where Greitens literally causes a field to explode with a gun.
But this historically expensive governor's race may soon become a thing of the past in Missouri. The state's voters will decide in November whether to put a $2,600 limit on donations to candidates for state office. It's not the only campaign finance measure facing voters this year, ballot measures before voters in South Dakota and Washington State would create systems to publicly finance state elections.
"These candidates are going to have to come to the people to get donations," said Todd Jones, an attorney who wrote the text of the donation limit amendment. "They can't rely on a few individuals in a ... smoke-filled room to fully fund their campaign, which some people have done."
Missouri Democrats have been the biggest advocates of ending the unlimited donation system, which started in 2008 under Republican Gov. Matt Blunt. But it was social conservatives who propelled this particular proposal to the ballot.
Former Republican gubernatorial candidate and businessman Fred Sauer spent several million dollars to get the donation limit measure before voters. Among other things, Sauer has contended that donors who favor embryonic stem cell research unduly influenced Missouri legislators in the past.
And Jones, who has long been in fights against abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, said the current system is corrosive to the public trust.
"If you give a million dollars to a candidate, whose call are you going to take?" Jones said. "Are you going to take mine? Or are you going to take the donor?"
Since the donation limit amendment doesn't have much organized opposition right now, there's a good chance Missourians will approve it on Nov. 8. The ballot measure also has bipartisan approval from both Democrats and Republicans.
Republican Sen. David Pearce voted to get rid of donation limits in 2008. At the time, he hoped that it would make big donations easier to track. But as Pearce prepares to leave office next year, he says voting to create the unlimited system was the worst decision of his legislative career.
"If I could take it back, I would," Pearce said. "Because it's not working. When you have folks that are giving million [dollar] checks, checks for a half-million dollars, $250,000 checks, $100,000 checks – I think it pollutes the system."
But some of Pearce's GOP colleagues have a less magnanimous opinion of the proposal. For one thing, it doesn't place any curbs on independent political action committees.
Some, like Republican state Senate candidate Bill Eigel, fear that if Missouri adopts contribution limits, the state's campaign finance system will look a lot like the federal system – and that's not meant as a compliment.
"Because the same amount of money is finding its way into our campaigns at the federal level," Eigel said. "And the same amount of cynicism and negativity still exists as a result of that money that's going into federal campaigns. But what's happened at the federal level, instead of what's being given to candidates where they can report it and there's transparency – it's funneled into superPACs."
Even if Missourians approve the amendment, both detractors and supporters believe there will be a legal challenge. Among other things, opponents object to how the amendment would bar certain types of companies from donating to political action committees.
Divide in governor's race
Meanwhile, both of Missouri's gubernatorial hopefuls – Republican Eric Greitens and Democrat Chris Koster – have different philosophical approaches to donation limits.
Greitens said earlier this year he opposes contributions curbs – adding that he doesn't feel that huge contributions he's received inhibits his ability to govern.
"I'm completely new to politics," Greitens said. "This is my first time in. But what I've found is the most important thing is that there's transparency around the money."
For at least part of the campaign, Koster agreed with Greitens. He voted to get rid of donation limits in 2008 when he was a Democratic state senator. And throughout the years, he's collected big donations from labor unions and some wealthy businessmen.
Although he doesn't plan to unilaterally take smaller donations, Koster threw his support behind contribution limits earlier this summer. He says he's troubled by the size of donations – and how candidates under a system with no contribution limits still find ways to hide sources of donations. Greitens recently received a nearly $2 million donation from a group called SEALs for Truth. When campaign disclosure reports came out earlier this week, it was revealed that the donor for SEALs for Truth was a nondescript nonprofit called the American Policy Coalition, Inc.
"What we do know is that transparency is not occurring," Koster said. "The contributions have gotten massively larger – and they are still hidden. It's clear that regular people in the state feel increasingly disconnected from their political system. And it seems to me that this can't go on – or shouldn't go on at least."
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The most expensive governor's race in the country is in Missouri. Candidates there have spent at least $50 million so far, and they could spend millions more before Election Day. Also on the ballot in Missouri is a measure that would try to stop the flow of big money into the state's political system. Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio reports.
JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: There are no donation limits in Missouri. And that means Republican Eric Greitens and Democrat Chris Koster have pulled in six and seven-figure checks from labor unions and wealthy business owners. Much of that money is going toward TV ads, including this memorable one where Greitens literally causes a field to explode with a gun.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ERIC GREITENS: Well, I'm no career politician. I'm a Navy SEAL. And I'll take dead aim at politics as usual.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS, EXPLOSION)
ROSENBAUM: Campaign ads like these aren't going away soon, but the way they're paid for in Missouri could change after November. A ballot measure here in Missouri could end that unlimited system. If it passes, candidates for state office would have a $2,600 limit per donor. Voters in South Dakota and Washington also have campaign finance ballot measures this fall that would publicly finance elections. While Missouri Democrats have been the biggest advocates of ending the unlimited donation system, social conservatives propelled this particular proposal to the ballot.
TODD JONES: If you give a million dollars to a candidate, whose call are you going to take? Are you going to take mine? Or are you going to take the donor?
ROSENBAUM: That's Todd Jones, a lawyer who's long been active in fights against abortion rights and stem cell research. He wrote the details of the ballot initiative, and former Republican gubernatorial candidate and businessman Fred Sauer spent several million dollars to get it before voters.
JONES: So there's a lot of issues with undue influence and impact that that donation has on the actual politician.
ROSENBAUM: Jones' amendment doesn't have much organized opposition right now, so there's a good chance Missourians will approve it on November 8. But a lot of Republicans don't believe the proposal will make races less expensive. The Missouri proposal doesn't place any curbs on independent political action committees. That leaves some, like Republican state Senate candidate Bill Eigel, fearing that Missouri's new system would look a lot like the federal system. And that's not meant as a compliment.
BILL EIGEL: Because the same amount of money is finding its way into our campaigns at the federal level. And the same amount of cynicism and negativity still exist as a result of that money that's going into the federal campaigns. But what's happened at the federal level is that instead of being given - money being given to candidates where they can report it and there's transparency, it's funneled into superPACs.
ROSENBAUM: Eigel's concerns are echoed by Greitens, the Republican gubernatorial nominee that was in that memorable ad with the big explosions. Greitens doesn't feel that the huge contributions he's received inhibits his ability to govern.
GREITENS: I'm completely new to politics. This is my first time in. But what I've found is that the most important thing is that there's transparency around the money.
ROSENBAUM: For part of the campaign, Chris Koster, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, agreed with Greitens. He voted to get rid of donation limits back in 2008 as a Democratic state senator. And he, too, has collected big checks, primarily from labor unions. But while he doesn't plan to unilaterally take smaller donations, Koster threw his support behind donation limits earlier this summer. He says he's troubled by the size of donations and how candidates under a system with no donation limits still find ways to conceal sources of contributions.
CHRIS KOSTER: Regular people in the state feel increasingly disconnected from their political system. And it seems to me that this can't go on - or shouldn't go on, at least.
ROSENBAUM: If voters decide to approve Missouri's donation limit amendment, both detractors and supporters expect the measure to face a legal challenge. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.