by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Candidates for Missouri’s statewide and legislative seats are already raising an enormous amount of money for the 2008 election. In the last quarter alone, Gov. Matt Blunt raised $1.6 million, and his Democratic challenger, Jay Nixon, raised $1 million.

But unlike previous election cycles, this time we know where the money is coming from. Blunt accepted $100,000 from Bob and Doylene Perry of Houston, $51,000 from Gerald Cook of Springfield and $50,000 from AT&T, along with numerous other large donations. Likewise, Nixon’s large donors included $100,000 from the labor union AFSCME, $25,000 from the Strong Law Firm in Springfield and $25,000 from the Alton, Ill.-based law firm SimmonsCooper.

We know who the big donors are because the Missouri General Assembly passed a law in 2006 to eliminate both limits on campaign contributions and the shell game of passing money through political committees to get around contribution limits. Before this change, large donors had to pass numerous small contributions through a series of political committees to contribute $25,000 or $100,000 to a candidate. The routing of funds through one or more committees made it nearly impossible for anyone other than the contributor or the candidate to know who was funding whom.

Unfortunately, this brief season of transparency – about who is giving big contributions to candidates – appears to be over. Last week the Missouri Supreme Court struck down this law, essentially reinstating the previous individual contribution limits of $325 to House candidates, $650 to Senate candidates and $1,250 to candidates for statewide offices. The court has also reinstated the shell game of moving money through political committees.

Although reinstating the contribution limits will do nothing to decrease the amount of money flowing into political campaigns, it will serve to obscure the identities of those who are funding these campaigns.

“What you’re going to see is people re-establish the district committees – which have pretty much disappeared because they don’t really have any relevance now – and then people will spend time raising money through those district committees,” Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, told Tribune reporter Jason Rosenbaum. “The truth of it is it’s a wink-and-nod system.”

And this “wink-and-nod” system can handle a large flow of cash. Using all the available county, legislative and district committees, it is possible for one contributor to give nearly $7.6 million to a gubernatorial candidate and a little more than $2 million to a House candidate.

“Money is like water. It will flow,” Graham told Rosenbaum. “It’s just a matter of how it flows to where it’s going.”

Ever since the Howard Dean presidential campaign, every political campaign has devoted some resources to going after small donors, mainly because it is very inexpensive to collect money over the Internet. But make no mistake: It is still the large donors who provide the bulk of most candidates’ cash. Candidates will not voluntarily limit themselves to small donors – doing so would guarantee a losing campaign. Why? Because candidates and their political consultants have figured out that – with enough money – you can purchase the consent of the governed. More than 90 percent of the time, the candidate who raises the most money wins.

It is a relatively simple formula to translate large campaign coffers into votes. First, you run phone banks and canvassing operations to identify the voters who either will definitely vote for you or might vote for you if persuaded. This can be done well in advance of the election. In fact, both gubernatorial campaigns have already started their voter-identification operations.

The next step is to run an operation to persuade those undecided voters to vote for you. Slicing and dicing is the name of the game here; campaigns figure out what each potential voter’s hot button issue is and target their message accordingly. Telling the truth is not a requirement during this phase, especially if the race is close and you’re behind in the polls.

Finally, you need to have enough money at the end of the campaign to fund a massive “get out the vote” operation to get your voters to the polls. Additional money can be spent flooding the media with your message – and attacking your opponent – in the final days of a campaign.

It is a scary how well this system works and how little the quality of the candidate figures into a winning campaign.

As long as this system continues to work, we will continue to have a government of the moneyed special interests, by the moneyed special interests and for the moneyed special interests. But now that the shell game is back in place, we citizens will not even know who the moneyed special interests are.