By Becky Willard
It has been almost two years since the 2016 campaign finance changes went into effect. In those two years, the oft-repeated question reverberating around Jefferson City has changed from “How much did you get from [insert name of favorite mega-donor here]” to “Do you have a PAC?” Two years into this financial reformation, we should be able to answer this question instead: Is the campaign finance picture more transparent than is was before?
(Spoiler alert: No.)
I don’t like contribution limits. From a free-speech perspective, I think people should be able to contribute as much as they want, to whomever they want. Just as some people have more time to volunteer (or are more talented and therefore frankly more valuable to a campaign effort), those with more expendable funds should be free to donate as they please. And generally speaking, when it comes to the aforementioned donors, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even donors who would prefer to give a large gift outright, in a completely transparent fashion, will find a way to support the candidates and causes they believe in (in a completely legal, albeit less-transparent way).
Putting my personal feelings aside though, I will concede that of course candidates can exist and thrive in a post-limit world.
The most successful candidates accomplish this by utilizing two separate tracks, the first of which is to raise funds into and court the attention of independently operated PACs. The benefit of these PACs is that they allow over-the-limit support and can provide supplemental, independent messaging to support or oppose candidates. Their mandated independence, of course, is also their greatest liability. What recourse does a candidate have if a PAC runs ads of which he or she does not approve? What if they assist in fundraising efforts, only to have the PAC manager decide to spend those funds somewhere else?
And the second part of this two-fold plan for success? That would be actual fundraising, into their campaign account, by talking to donors. Which leads me to what I hate to admit is a potential silver lining of this abysmal regulation: maybe, just maybe, candidates will reconnect with smaller donors on a more personal level than they have over the past decade or so.
Before limits were removed in 2008, a candidate running for State Representative could accept a maximum of $325 from an individual donor. If you needed to raise $10,000, you had to talk to a minimum of 31 people, making your case for support. In between 2008 and 2016, you could talk to one person and end up with that same $10,000. Today, you would need to convince at least four donors to back you if you wanted $10,000 in the bank. Four times, you would have to articulate why you are worthy of support – and, perhaps more importantly, you would learn what four different people care about and want to see happen in our state. Four points of view on current events, four perspectives on legislation, four ideas for what would make Missouri a better place for all of us to live.
Setting aside this happy accident however, 2016’s Amendment 2 was a full-on Monet (say it with me, Clueless fans: “It’s like a painting…from far away it’s okay, but up close it’s a big old mess.”). Taking a general view, the majority thought it seemed like responsible regulation but once we got close the mess was revealed: odd loopholes, inconsistent restrictions, rules that can’t pass legal scrutiny, and ultimately a less transparent picture. In the end, I find it hard to believe that any group feels like they got want they wanted out of this initiative (which, incidentally, I predict will happen with Amendment 1, the so-called Clean Missouri initiative – but that’s an editorial for another time).
Becky Willard is a Director with Axiom Strategies and works with a portfolio of federal and state candidates focusing on fundraising, as well as corporate clients at a national level.