Checks: Political Money & Democracy

New PAC Will Back Every Single Democrat Running for Congress

For the past two decades, Democratic fundraiser and operative Jonathan Zucker has been fed up with the way his party doles out funds to candidates.

The problem, as Zucker sees it, is that Democrats distribute most of their funds to candidates running in swing districts that the party sees as winnable, instead of divvying the money up evenly between every Democratic general election candidate. By picking winners and losers, Zucker argues, the party ignores large portions of the country and makes it harder for candidates to make incursions into Republican strongholds.

Zucker’s solution is a new PAC dubbed It Starts Today that sets out to solicit donations for every Democrat running in one of the 468 congressional races set for 2018. The former executive director of the digital fundraising platform ActBlue, Zucker has built his new PAC around a high-technology gimmick and simple math, asking donors to give at least one cent per month to each of those 468 candidates—a mere $4.68 a month.

“You never know which district will have a rock-star candidate emerge on the Democratic side, or say, a district where a Republican incumbent gets caught up in a scandal, but you know that without funding you can’t take that advantage,” says Zucker.

Zucker’s aim is to fix what he sees as a party-wide problem that is hurting Democrats at every level. On election night, Republicans not only won the White House, but secured six- and 44-seat majorities in the Senate and House respectively. They also cemented their grip on state governments, where the GOP now controls 32 Legislatures and 33 governorships. To Zucker, this is the price Democrats have paid for ignoring large portions of the country for decades.

Zucker acknowledges that targeting only contested races can efficiently allocate scarce resources in the short term. But the consequences of this targeted spending, he argues, have been ruinous. In 2016, there were 79 congressional districts where the Democratic Party either didn’t field a candidate, or ran a race with less than $10,000 in funding. Altogether, Democrats in those 79 districts raised $88,000 compared to the $111 million raised by Republicans.

The money raised by It Starts Today will not be distributed until the primaries are over. After that the PAC will send out equal payments to every Democratic nominee’s campaign within 10 days. As additional money comes in, further donations will be disbursed in weekly installments to every Democratic campaign in equal measure.

This will make general election money perpetually available to all Democratic office seekers, explains Zucker, something that he says will help level the playing field for progressive candidates who may lack the resources to run effective campaigns. This will free the party up to take a risk on long-shot candidates instead of focusing only on swing states, says Zucker, making it less likely that Democrats will miss low-profile politicians with enormous potential.

Even if Democrats fail to take back Congress, Zucker predicts that It Starts Today will help overall turnout. He says Democrats can make inroads in the kinds of small, rural communities that have been sending Republicans to Washington, and where Democrats have failed to field challengers for years. Zucker even thinks it could make an impact at the top of the ticket.

“What if we had turned out 12,000 voters that weren’t excited about Clinton, but weren’t voting for Trump?” asks Zucker. “That flips Michigan and Pennsylvania. And there were 24 state legislative races in Wisconsin without a Democrat on the ballot, and another 15 with under $10,000—just one thousand [voters] from each of them. That changes the presidency.”

The ACLU’s New Rallying Cry: “See You in Court, and See You in the Streets.”

The day after Donald Trump’s election, the American Civil Liberties Union posted the words “See you in court” on its homepage next to an image of the incoming president. Now, the ACLU has a slightly longer message for Trump: “See you in court, and see you in the streets.”

That’s the rallying cry of a new ACLU platform called PeoplePower.org, which the civil-rights group recently set up to mobilize grassroots efforts to resist Trump and his administration. The program gives the ACLU a new weapon in its battle to protect Americans against threats to civil liberties and democracy.

“We can’t just write letters to the administration,” says Faiz Shakir, the group’s national political director. “We have to marshal mass mobilization and strengthen public opinion.”

Since Election Day, the ACLU has received a massive outpouring of donations, totaling an estimated $79 million, and has helped spearhead numerous legal challenges to Trump administration policies, including a successful suit to block deportation of immigrants under Trump’s refugee executive order.

To help lead its new grassroots program, the ACLU has recruited some progressive stars, including Melanie Garunay, Barack Obama’s former digital organizing director; Becky Bond, former digital organizer for Bernie Sanders; and Kenneth Pennington, Sanders’s former digital director. The program will enable the ACLU to tap its two million members and 50 state affiliates for direct action.

Upcoming actions include a town hall in Miami, Florida, which PeoplePower.org will broadcast online, on March 11. During the town hall, the group will run a “resistance training” workshop. This will consist of three key components, says Shakir: the legal rights of organizers or protesters, a discussion of immigration issues, and a call to action detailing how participants can engage in their communities.

 “The ACLU is known for wonderful litigation, and has been involved in essentially every major fight for equality,” explains Shakir. “We’re now adding a major new tool to the tool shed.”

Another First for Trump: A Policy Arm Operating Totally in Secret

Donald Trump isn’t the first president to enjoy the support of nonprofit groups that promote his policy agenda, but he may be the first whose outside backers operate entirely in secret.

When Trump allies announced last week the formation of America First Policies, a 501(c)(4) issue group that will be the president’s main outside advocacy vehicle, observers immediately drew comparisons to Organizing for Action, the nonprofit that allies of Barack Obama launched after he won reelection in 2012. But unlike Organizing for Action, which agreed under pressure to publicly disclose its big-money benefactors every quarter, Trump’s America First has given no indication that it intends to disclose who its funders are.

Such political nonprofits are not required by law to disclose their donors, but watchdogs worry that without public reporting, advocacy operations like America First could become dark money slush funds that allow anonymous donors to influence critical policy debates—with the public none the wiser. The group is run by conservative operatives like the Trump campaign’s digital director Brad Parscale and Vice President Mike Pence’s former top advisor Nick Ayers, and will run digital and TV ads to promote such Trump priorities as winning Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, repealing Obamacare, and cracking down on immigration.

“There’s nothing wrong with policy advocacy,” says Meredith McGehee, of the bipartisan campaign-finance reform group Issue One. “The problem here is that you have a group that is directly connected with the president, and it can well be anticipated that the donors who make contributions to this entity will ensure that the president or his aides know exactly what they’ve done. That will buy them both access and influence.”

Moreover, America First won’t be the only top-secret group advocating for Trump. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, both prominent supporters of Trump during his campaign, are also leading a nonprofit called the Greater America Alliance that will reportedly advocate for various parts of Trump’s agenda. At the top of the list will be the Gorsuch nomination and Trump’s economic and infrastructure plans. The group plans to spend $80 million on policy fights in 2017 alone, Politico reports. Two GOP operatives who ran the Great America super PAC, which spent about $22 million on behalf of Trump’s presidential campaign, will run the Alliance. And like America First, the Greater America Alliance has announced no plans to disclose its donors.

Yet another group, a 501(c)(4) dubbed the 45 Committee, is investing at least $4 million in ads to ensure that Trump’s cabinet picks are confirmed, according to a Washington Examiner report. The 45 group is also expected to finance attack ads on Democratic senators it deems vulnerable in the 2018 midterm elections. That group is affiliated with a super PAC dubbed Future45, which is financed by conservative mega-donors Sheldon Adelson and the Chicago-based Ricketts family. Together, the two groups spent tens of millions backing Trump in the presidential campaign.

The secrecy surrounding pro-Trump advocacy groups is in line with the president’s own hostility to transparency, says Adam Smith, communications director for the money-in-politics watchdog Every Voice. Smith pointed to Trump’s refusal to disclose all his business ties, release his tax returns, or even publish a list of his campaign bundlers. This culture of secrecy could have real ramifications for pending policy battles on the Hill, says Smith, including the administration’s push for Wall Street deregulation.

“When it comes to the Dodd-Frank fight, when Congress starts introducing bills and these groups start running ads, we deserve to know whether its his Wall Street friends funding them,” Smith says. “If you’re the president of the United States and you have all these ties to Wall Street and rich people, people deserve to know who they are.”

DeVos Finally Gets Hearing -- Before the Same Senators She Helped Elect

Campaign-finance questions will loom large over the Senate’s Tuesday confirmation hearing for billionaire and education lobbyist Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary.

Having initially postponed the hearing, senators now face a mounting list of questions about DeVos. The latest is why she failed to disclose a $125,000 political donation, something the Trump transition team initially failed to catch. Also sure to come up are DeVos’s business ties and secret political giving, not to mention the recent report that she and her husband have 250 companies registered to a single address in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Awkwardly, though, much of DeVos’s campaign money has gone to the very senators now screening her nomination. Five of the Republicans on the committee have received more than $250,000 between them from DeVos and her family. (They are North Carolina’s Richard Burr, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, and Indiana’s Todd Young.) And there are 21 more senators, not on the committee, who have together received nearly $1 million from DeVos and her family.

DeVos herself makes no bones that such contributions can sway lawmakers. “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” she wrote in a 1997 Roll Call op-ed. “Now I simply concede the point. They are right.” She went on to admit, “We expect a return on our investment.”

DeVos has certainly reaped a handsome return on the big campaign money she has spent to promote far-right policies. In Michigan, DeVos spent millions to elect Republicans, including Governor Rick Snyder and members of the GOP-controlled legislature, who then rubber-stamped her for-profit schools agenda. Her sway over the legislature was so great that state lawmakers who crossed her were removed from chairing committees, and subject to well-funded attacks when they sought re-election, according to The New York Times.

The resulting for-profit schools explosion in Detroit, a district with a student body that is 97 percent children of color, diverted money away from the city’s public schools while leaving families with no good choices. Taxpayers are pumping millions into failing or nonexistent charter schools that operate with little oversight. A lawsuit filed by Detroit families alleges that the city’s schools denied them literacy. Seventy-one percent of eighth graders in Michigan aren’t proficient in math while 71 percent of fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading, according to the 2016 Kids Count report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

DeVos, in the meantime, appears to be cashing in. About 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit companies, like K12 Inc., a for-profit chain of online charter schools, in which the DeVos family has invested. A key question for the Senate now is whether she profited from Michigan’s experiments in education.

In Flint, Michigan, policies that hurt the city’s black residents also enriched DeVos, only this time the casualty was clean water, not public schools. For more than two years, toxic water has been poisoning Flint’s mostly black residents. That’s partly because the DeVos-backed Mackinac Center for Public Policy advocated for the state to appoint emergency managers to replace elected officials in cities with persistent budgetary shortfalls. The DeVos-funded Republican majority in state government adopted this plan, and in 2013, Snyder appointed Darnell Earley to act as the emergency manager for Flint. In a cost-saving measure, Earley switched the city’s safe and clean water supply over to lead-laced water. The rest is history.

And again, DeVos effectively profited from the water crisis she helped create. She chairs the Windquest Group, an investor in Boxed Water, a company that promoted its brand by offering to donate water to Flint whenever customers bought the product.

This story has been updated. 

House Democrats Have a Plan to Go After Trump’s Conflicts

On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump held a long-awaited press conference to address how he will deal with the potential conflicts of interest posed by his massive business empire. For weeks, ethics watchdogs have called on the president-elect to fully divest from his business operations and place them in a blind trust.

Trump ignored those demands, announcing that he will retain ownership of his businesses, which his sons will oversee in a trust. To address concerns about possible violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, Trump said that he will donate all of earnings from hotel bookings made by foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. (Sheri Dillon, Trump’s attorney has argued that his hotel holdings do not violate the Emoluments Clause.)

Trump continued to insist that none these measures were required by law and that he was making these moves voluntarily. “[My sons] are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They’re not going to discuss it with me. Again, I don’t have to do this. They’re not going to discuss it with me,” Trump said.

In response, House Democrats plan to launch a “Democracy Reform Task Force” that aims to hold Trump accountable for conflicts of interest and ethical lapses. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has tapped Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes, a leading proponent of ethics reform, to head the task force.

Trump’s plan “doesn’t come close to solving the problems that these conflicts of interest present,” Sarbanes says in an interview with the Prospect. “This notion that giving it to his sons to look after is absurd as representing any real distancing from these conflicts.”

“Without fully divesting ownership, there’s no way to avoid potential for divided loyalties. When he goes to make a decision [as president], somewhere in his brain, if he still has business ownership, he’s got to be thinking if the decision as president will hurt or benefit his business,” Sarbanes adds.

While the Democrats’ new task force won’t have any formal power to investigate Trump, Sarbanes said that members will hold ethics forums around the country; provide resources to ranking Democrats on relevant committees; and highlight Democratic legislation—like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill that would require Trump to fully divest or Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin’s bill to ban “golden parachute” bonuses for private-sector executives entering public service—that address the ethical concerns of Trump’s administration. “[The task force] can be a very effective clearinghouse on this broad issue of accountability,” Sarbanes says.

Sarbanes hopes that the task force will serve as a rapid-response operation to deal with Trump administration ethics concerns as they emerge. He also wants to see the group organize campaigns like the one that public-interest organizations led in early January that generated a flood of constituent calls to House Republicans after news broke that they planned to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. The calls were widely credited with forcing Republicans to back off the plan.

The Democrats’ ethics task force could become their primary tool for challenging the impending ethical dilemmas of the Trump administration, especially since they aren’t optimistic that congressional Republicans will monitor or rein in any new Trump conflicts that come to light.

Sarbanes is setting out to recruit members of the Democratic caucus to help articulate “nimble, timely” responses as needed while crafting an overarching message that Democrats are leading the way on holding Trump accountable. “We want to be in the middle of that conversation,” he says, adding “I don’t see that coming from the other side of the aisle.”

As part of, the House task force will also focus on other democracy and campaign-finance issues that are part of its larger “By the People” package and, further, will seek to “expose the GOP’s special-interest agenda.” 

New Jersey Public School Employees Sue Over Alleged Political Retalitation

It’s no secret that school board politics can create bitter enemies, but rarely do such battles end in actual employee firings.

But nine New Jersey public school employees are claiming that a school board feud cost them their jobs, and they've recently filed a provocative federal lawsuit, each seeking $100,000 in damages.

The former employees of Elizabeth Public Schools—the fourth-largest school district in New Jersey—say they were fired for exercising their First Amendment rights of political speech and association after they campaigned for certain school board candidates who ultimately lost. In what could turn out to be a costly twist, the school board says it might file a countersuit, alleging nothing less than federal racketeering violations.

The whole drama is unfolding against the backdrop of a bitter political feud that’s divided two competing factions within the local Democratic party.

The case centers on the district’s November 2015 school board election, when three of nine seats were up for grabs. Two rival Democratic blocs endorsed different slates of candidates, though the elections are technically nonpartisan.

According to the federal complaint, one faction, known as “Continue The Progress” (CTP), has maintained a majority on the school board for about two decades. In 2015, three candidates (Tony Monteiro, Elcy Castillo-Ospina, and Michelle Velez-Jont) ran on the CTP ticket.

The other Democratic faction, backed by Elizabeth’s mayor of 25 years, J. Christian Bollwage, supported three CTP opponents (Charlene Bathelus, Stephanie Goncalves, and Daniel Nina). Prior to the 2015 election, the school board comprised five CTP members and four Bollwage-backed members. But all the CTP candidates lost, giving the mayoral faction a 6–3 majority.

The plaintiffs allege that upon taking power, the Bollwage faction “purged” the district of employees who openly supported or were perceived to support the CTP candidates. They claim their contracts were terminated not due to performance, “but rather due to retaliation” for political activity. Their 28-page complaint, drafted by an attorney with a Philadelphia-based law firm, alleges First Amendment violations, due process violations, and violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.

The stakes for this kind of suit are high. In the September 2015 issue of The American Prospect, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of public affairs at Columbia, reported on the growing threat of “employer mobilization”—when employers recruit workers into political activity (or retaliate against them for their own political activity). Workers are already subjected to threats, harassment, and other forms of retaliation for union activity, and Hertel-Fernandez says that “it is not a stretch to imagine that in our deeply polarized era, employers might adopt more aggressive political tactics in the same way they have fought unionization.”

In a statement released to Union News Daily (named for the New Jersey county Elizabeth is located in, not the labor movement), Elizabeth district spokesperson Pat Politano said the allegations made against the district, the superintendent, and the school board are “false, frivolous, and will be defended vigorously.” All contract renewals made since January 2016, he said, were done in accordance with state and federal law and Department of Education regulations. According to NJ.Com, Politano’s former job involved consulting for the political campaigns of mayor-backed board members.

Politano said the school district is “considering all appropriate legal actions” in response to the complaint, including the possibility of filing the racketeering counterclaim, arguing that previous boards of education saw the district “as a source of personal benefit to themselves and their political allies.”

In this northern New Jersey city, it seems corruption charges can fly both ways—even within the same party.

Jeff Sessions Is Public Enemy Number One for Voting-Rights Groups

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore) 

Common Cause, a nonpartisan political advocacy and watchdog group, rarely wades into political nomination battles. In its nearly half-century of existence, the group has come out in staunch opposition to just a handful of nominees it found extraordinarily hostile to its core mission. Now it will oppose the confirmation of Trump’s expected nominee for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, citing his troublesome record on voting rights.  

“We do not believe and do not have confidence, because of his past history and actions, that he will enforce critical voting-rights laws,” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday morning. “He has for decades been an outspoken critic of the Voting Rights Act, one of the country’s most critical pieces of civil and voting rights legislation.”

The group pointed to Sessions’s past statements calling the VRA a “piece of intrusive legislation,” to his approval of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to gut the law’s crucial Section 5, and to his failed legal crusade against three civil rights activists who were registering voters while he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama in the 1980s as evidence that the senator would be hostile toward robust voter protections.

“We believe that if he becomes attorney general, the Voting Rights Act is on the chopping block and many of the recent victories in the courts that we’ve seen that have struck down laws designed to suppress minority voting will be threatened under a Sessions-led Justice Department,” Hobart Flynn added. 

Since 2010, 20 states have passed restrictive voting laws. The Obama DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has successfully challenged the legality of several of those voter-suppression laws that required photo identification or used racial gerrymandering to create redistricting maps. But Common Cause is concerned that a Sessions Justice Department would be far less vigilant in its enforcement of voting rights. 

The group’s announcement that it will attempt to block Sessions’s nomination could hold some sway. It boasts a membership base of some 700,000 members with chapters in 35 states. Its grassroots strength was on full display earlier this week when it helped lead a constituent call-in campaign to Republican House members who wanted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Whether it can use that grassroots firepower to convince Sessions’s Republican Senate colleagues to vote against him will be a taller order. But Common Cause won’t be going it alone. On Monday, NAACP leaders staged a sit-in and were ultimately arrested in the senator’s Mobile office, calling on him to withdraw his name from consideration due to his voting-rights record and numerous allegations of racism.

Recent confirmations opposed by Common Cause include Reagan Supreme Court justice nominee Robert Bork in 1987 and George H.W. Bush defense secretary nominee John Tower in 1989, both of whom failed to get confirmed. It also opposed Reagan’s nomination of Attorney General Edwin Meese and George W. Bush’s Federal Election Commission member Hans von Spakovsky, both of whom succeeded in their confirmations.   

Reforming Democracy in the Age of Trump

On November 10, Miles Rapoport sat down with Bob Herbert's Op-Ed.TV to discuss what led to Donald Trump's victory, what it means for voting rights and money in politics, and how democracy reformers should respond. Rapoport is a long-time democracy advocate who served as secretary of state in Connecticut, and president of both Demos and Common Cause, as well as a member of The American Prospect's board. His most recent feature, "From a Contentious Election to a Stronger Democracy" appeared in the Prospect's Fall 2016 issue. 

More Corporations Embrace Disclosure, Despite Conservative Opposition

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is in a standoff with Democrats as he refuses to remove a rider to a short-term funding bill that would prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission from strengthening political disclosure requirements for corporations.

Stopping measures that would shine some light on corporations’ secret political spending is a top priority for McConnell, along with his powerful allies at one of the leading sources of dark money: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Chamber officials argue that requiring more disclosure is a just an underhanded ploy to keep corporations from exercising free speech.

Yet an increasing number of American companies don’t see it that way. With greater scrutiny on corporate money in politics, businesses are adopting internal policies that specifically disclosure their political activities and some are even voluntarily curbing their campaign spending, according to a new report on corporate transparency from the Center for Political Accountability and the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“We find that companies now recognize that political spending is a risk and that they need to have disclosure policies in place,” says Bruce Freed, president and founder of the Center for Political Accountability (CPA). He says that after Citizens United corporations face greater pressure from trade associations, political nonprofits, and super PACs who want their money and find that putting transparency policies in place can provide a buffer against such requests.

For the first time, the annual CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability compares the policies of all Standard & Poor’s 500 companies, including some of the biggest political spenders in the country, over consecutive years. The analysis examines corporate policies regarding political spending; board of directors’ oversight of political spending; disclosure of trade association dues and contributions to 501(c)(4)s; and other metrics.

The CPA-Zicklin Index finds that a growing number of companies have addressed the rise of dark money by developing or strengthening policies that require some level of disclosure of payments to trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the American Chemistry Council as well as social-welfare 501(c)(4)s. These groups have been driving forces behind the increase in undisclosed political campaign contributions.

Nearly half of all S&P 500 companies disclosed some type of payment to trade associations or specifically directed these groups not to use their money on election spending. Nearly one third disclosed some type of information about contributions to social-welfare groups, noted that they prohibited contributions to these types of groups, or had directed these types of groups not to use contributions on election-related activities. The report noted that 53 companies instituted some type of limitation on payments made to social-welfare groups and trade associations, up from 40 in 2015.

“Companies have a responsibility to know how their money is being used and have a say in how it’ll be spent,” Freed says. “Even if they don’t disclose payments but do disclose memberships, that means that questions can be asked. Shareholders know; journalists know; the public knows.”

The chamber, along with other trade groups, has pushed back against the CPA-Zicklin Index. Last year, The Huffington Post published an email message sent to the Carlton Group, a Washington, D.C., corporate interest group, by Lisa Rickard, president of the chamber’s Institute of Legal Reform, calling the Index “part of an orchestrated campaign to ultimately limit the business community’s ability to engage in political and policy debates.”

Many of the companies leading the way on transparency are also members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, despite the organization’s stark opposition to any type of corporate disclosure—mandatory or voluntary. Of the 94 companies in the top tier of the index, 36 are verified members of the chamber, according to a tally provided to the Prospect by the CPA. Those member-companies include industry behemoths like Pfizer, Monsanto, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Dow Chemical, Aetna, and Altria.

“That’s the thing we find very ironic,” Freed says. “The chamber’s opposition has had no effect on companies decisions on disclosure and has had no impact on continued pace of disclosure. We’ve seen no companies back down.”

The chamber is the largest source of dark money in the 2016 election so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, having already spent more than $22 million this election cycle to protect the Republican Party’s majority in the Senate. The trade group’s spending, funded by undisclosed donors, has fueled record-levels of dark-money contributions across the country. Meanwhile, political nonprofits have already spent nearly $50 million in federal elections, and that figure is expected to skyrocket in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

Still, disclosure advocates argue that the voluntary corporate transparency policies do not negate the need for uniform and universal disclosure regulations, as the proposed SEC rule would require.

“This trend of increasing voluntary disclosure is a sign that this is becoming a norm and that is happening because investors want this disclosure,” says Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The SEC should take their cue from those investors.” 

 

This Is What Happens When a State Has No Contribution Limits

Rex Sinquefield, left, shakes hands with Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder in 2011. (Photo: Flickr, Fired Up! Missouri)
 

The RNC platform released this week broadly calls for rolling back federal campaign-finance laws—going so far as to advocate for the right of donors to contribute unlimited amounts of money. “Limits on political speech serve only to protect the powerful and insulate incumbent officeholders. We support repeal of federal restrictions on political parties in McCain-Feingold, raising or repealing contribution limits,” the party’s platform states.

Curious what that may look like? Well, look no further than Missouri, one of the few states that places absolutely no limits on campaign contributions. Combine limitless political giving with a pivotal governor’s race, and you’ve got a recipe for a Wild West-style campaign season.

Missouri’s gubernatorial primary elections are just a few weeks away, and there are four candidates still vying for the GOP nomination. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that three of those four candidates have received more than $1 million from a single individual or family. It’s no wonder why the battle for the job is so heated: A Republican governor would be incredibly powerful. The legislature is currently controlled by Republicans, and with Democrats unlikely to pick up many seats this November, the GOP would have complete control of the state.

Missouri business owner and mega-donor David Humphreys and his sister Sarah Atkins each gave $500,000 to Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder, the GOP gubernatorial frontrunner. Humphreys is a major opponent of organized labor and wants Missouri to pass right-to-work legislation that was vetoed by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon. In addition to his contribution to Kinder, who supports right-to-work laws, Humphreys and his family have given nearly $3 million to a PAC to target pro-union Republicans.

Catherine Hanaway, a former Missouri speaker of the House, has received at least $3 million from St. Louis investor Rex Sinquefield, the state’s most powerful funder of conservative politics, or PACs that he funds. Over a two-month period last year, Sinquefield contributed $10,000 a week to Hanaway’s campaign. For many years, Sinquefield has funded the state’s conservative politicians, organizations, and causes to the tune of $40 million and is a staunch supporter of repealing all Missouri taxes.

Another GOP candidate’s campaign, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, got a last minute donation this week of nearly $2 million. The contribution came from SEALs for Truth, a Washington-based group set up last month: So far Greitens is the only candidate to receive any money from the organization.

What about the fourth GOP candidate, you ask? That would be former CEO John Brunner. While he hasn’t received millions from any single outside donor, Brunner himself has given or loaned at least $4.75 million of his own money to his campaign. It’s not his first rodeo—in 2012, he self-funded his unsuccessful $8 million bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

Missouri offers just a small taste of what Republicans Party leaders hope could happen nationwide. They see unlimited political contributions as an affirmation of free speech and a boon for political competition.

However, as the Missouri case illustrates, what ends up happening is that all the millionaires and billionaires who are willing to spend small fortunes propping up the campaigns of their preferred candidates are drowning out the political voices of everyday citizens. Instead they work to advance policies, like repealing income and corporate taxes or making it harder for their workers to unionize, that disproportionately benefit the wealthy. 

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