Politics & Government

Kobach says campaign donation limits are ‘very low’ in Kansas

Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Greg Orman
Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Greg Orman File photos

Kansans can give up to $4,000 to their favorite candidate each election cycle.

Kris Kobach says that’s not enough.

The Republican candidate for governor wants Kansas to let supporters give more in statewide races — such as governor and attorney general — and tie increases to inflation.

“I would like to see some reforms regarding campaign finance contribution limits. It has been almost 30 years since the legislature last (updated) limits for statewide offices. They are very low,” Kobach said in a statement.

He was responding to The Eagle asking candidates for governor what campaign finance reforms they would propose. Of the major candidates, only Kobach said he wanted higher contribution limits. Libertarian Jeff Caldwell said he supports eliminating contribution limits entirely.

Kansas has one of the lowest contribution limits in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fewer than a dozen states have lower limits.

More than a dozen states allow unlimited donations. And more than 10 states have limits of $5,000 or greater.

For statewide offices, Kansas sets a limit of $2,000 per person for each candidate during the primary election (or $4,000 per couple). During the general election season, individual donors can give another $2,000 to each candidate, or another $4,000 per couple.

The same rules apply to donations to independent candidates, even though they aren’t involved in primary elections.

The $2,000 limit on individual contributions in statewide races has been in place since 1989. Before that, the ceiling stood at $3,000.

Because of inflation, political donation dollars buy less than they did back in 1989. Someone would have to donate about $4,161 today to match the purchasing power of $2,000 in 1989.

Raising contribution limits would empower scores of donors in Kansas who give the maximum amount to candidates.

As of July 30, Kobach had 15 donors who had given the maximum of $2,000 in the primary. Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly had more than 60, while independent Greg Orman had more than 30.

Competing proposals

Asked how they would reform campaign finance, Orman and Kelly said they want to restrict lobbyists and fight the influence of dark money.

Kelly’s campaign said Kobach wants to “drain the swamp” in Topeka while increasing the amount of money in politics at the same time.

“Kobach clearly wants to make things even worse,” Kelly spokeswoman Johanna Warshaw said.

When asked about Kobach’s comments, the campaign pointed to Orman’s desire to restrict campaign contributions by lobbyists and increase transparency of political donations.

The idea of raising contribution limits has at least some bipartisan appeal among lawmakers.

A higher limit would help campaigns raise money, said Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican who sits on the Senate’s ethics and elections committee and supports increasing the limit.

“I think we do need to recognize the limits are low and have been for quite awhile and … therefore, they spend a lot of time, more time raising money than they otherwise might have to,” Fitzgerald said.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat who also sits on the committee, said she doesn’t agree with Kobach on much. But she indicated she would be inclined to support raising the limit because of the increasing cost of campaign materials. She cautioned that her support would ultimately depend on the specific proposal.

“We do have to be realistic: it does take money to run for office. You’ve got to get your message out there and statewide that’s a bit more difficult to do,” Faust-Goudeau said.

Still, there is some hesitation over raising the limits.

Speaking about campaign finance in general, Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican who is running uncontested this year, said the Kansas system works well.

“I don’t think, in general, that we need more spending in our races. I think those limits definitely help. I think the reporting helps to have an idea of what is going on,” Johnson said.

Campaigns for governor are expensive. The last three winning campaigns for Kansas governor spent between $2.6 million and $5.9 million.

In addition, outside groups spent $9.5 million on ads targeted at state-level offices in Kansas in 2014, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

Only Kobach’s proposal to raise contribution limits would directly increase the amount of money flowing into campaigns.

Orman’s campaign said he supports prohibiting lobbyists from making or bundling contributions to statewide campaigns. That would bar hundreds of people — some of the most politically connected people in the state — from donating.

Orman spokesman Nick Connors said the candidate would also “prohibit lawmakers, appointed officials and senior staff members from registering as a lobbyist for three years after leaving office.”

Kelly supports limiting so-called dark money and requiring finance reporting of political groups seeking to influence elections, Warshaw said. Dark money groups spend money on ads to sway elections but don’t have to disclose their donors.

Kelly also supports reversing the Citizens United decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed for a proliferation of super PACs that can accept unlimited contributions, though in practice that would take another decision by the Supreme Court.

Asked about Orman and Kelly’s ideas, Kobach said that he too would like to impose time restrictions on lawmakers lobbying after leaving office.

Kobach’s call for increased contribution limits comes in a year when several statewide candidates, who are exempt from the limits, have self-funded their own campaigns with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That includes Kobach’s running mate, Wink Hartman, who has loaned the campaign more than $1.5 million. Orman has donated more than half a million dollars to his own bid.

The notable exception is Kelly, who has donated $100 to her campaign.

A full half of all individual contributions in statewide races have come from the candidates themselves, according to an analysis of campaign finance data by the Kansas Ethics Commission. Statewide candidates had given $2.9 million of their own funds as of July 30.

Campaigns are having a more difficult time reaching voters through traditional means, like TV ads, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. Political consulting also costs more and campaigns are putting more resources into fieldwork.

“We’re more and more in a political culture where self-finance is expected, it’s common, and obviously that’s an environment that favors wealthy people,” Miller said.

Still, the degree of self-funding in Kansas statewide campaigns this year is “very far from normal,” Miller said.