In addition to investing in four state Supreme Court races, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a trial court election in Cole County, Missouri, home of the state capital, Jefferson City. The RSLC received substantial contributions from wealthy local businessman Rex Sinquefield, although it stated in press reports that it did not earmark funds for the Cole County race based on contributions. 1
In 2011, Sinquefield was a major financial supporter of a series of bills called the Missouri Income Tax Replacement Initiative, which was designed to eliminate the income tax and instead enact an increased and expanded sales tax. In October 2011, Sinquefield donated $1.3 million to a group called Let Voters Decide, which was a major supporter of the bill, and he gave them another $1.2 million in January 2012.
But the bill never made it to the ballot. The Cole County 19th Judicial Circuit Court is the first stop for challenges to state ballot measures. And in April 2012, Judge Patricia Joyce of Cole County found that the proposed summary to be placed on the ballot was insufficient and possibly deceptive to voters. 2 Joyce ordered a rewrite of the fiscal summary to better inform voters of the proposal. Because the deadline for submitting the petition was only a few weeks later, the decision effectively killed the referendum. 3
When Judge Joyce faced reelection in November 2014, a little over two years after this decision, the election was initially quiet. By the beginning of October, Republican challenger Brian Stumpe had less than $5,000 left in his campaign account and was nearly $13,000 in debt. Yet within a few weeks, the RSLC donated over $300,000 to the RSLC-Missouri PAC, which in turn donated $100,000 to Stumpe’s campaign, and spent the rest on TV ads and other materials targeting Joyce. All of this occurred nearly simultaneously with a donation of $300,000 to the national RSLC by Sinquefield.
When the RSLC disclosed Sinquefield’s donation in an IRS filing in early December, press reports swiftly connected the dots between the donation and the local RSLC’s expenditures in the Stumpe-Joyce election. The actual sequence of contributions is not so linear; records show the local RSLC PAC actually got the first $100,000 from the national organization and gave to the Stumpe campaign a few days before Sinquefield gave his gift to the RSLC. After the national RSLC gave its campaign donation to Stumpe, RSLC spokeswoman Jill Bader told a Missouri newspaper that she could not identify any specific donor behind the contribution, saying, “We neither accept nor provide earmarked funds.” 4
Although Sinquefield’s donations were only uncovered after Election Day, the RSLC’s involvement in the Cole County race drew objections from Missouri voters. A Justice at Stake poll conducted in October 2014 showed that two-thirds of Cole County’s voters were concerned about outside, special-interest money in the race. 5 Despite a series of ads depicting Joyce as “groovy” and beholden to “radical environmentalists,” she won the election with 53 percent of the vote. “Is there a negative backlash (from the outside advertising)?” Stumpe asked in an interview. “Clearly.” 6