Missouri Has The Nation's Most Expensive Race For Governor, A Ballot Measure Could Change That At $50 million and counting, Missouri's gubernatorial election is the most expensive in the country. A ballot measure could reimpose contribution limits after getting rid of them in 2008.
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Missouri Voters To Decide Whether To Rein In Unlimited Political Cash

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Missouri Voters To Decide Whether To Rein In Unlimited Political Cash

Missouri Voters To Decide Whether To Rein In Unlimited Political Cash

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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.

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