Progressive Challenger Cori Bush Is Outspending Rep. Lacy Clay On TV

Clay, a 10-term incumbent, relies mostly on family to staff his campaign.
Cori Bush, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. William "Lacy" Clay (D-Mo.) in 2018, is getting more traction this cycle.
Cori Bush, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. William "Lacy" Clay (D-Mo.) in 2018, is getting more traction this cycle.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Progressive challenger Cori Bush is outspending Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay on television ads in the final weeks before their showdown in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

In the last two weeks before the election, Bush booked about $184,000 in TV ads, compared with just over $118,000 from Clay, according to data obtained by HuffPost. (Clay’s spending was higher, however, in the week of July 22 to 26.)

In addition, Justice Democrats, a left-wing group backing Bush, has spent more than $146,000 on TV ads boosting her candidacy in the final week of the race.

Bush also outspent Clay on the radio: nearly $6,400 in ads, compared to Clay’s $4,000.

“From the second quarter of 2020 on, Cori Bush has built a clear advantage over the 20-year incumbent,” Bush campaign spokesperson Keenan Korth said. “As his fundraising ability evaporates in real time, our campaign continues to bring in thousands of small-dollar donations daily, all without taking a single dime of corporate money.”

Jeff Smith, a former state senator who now runs the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, said Bush’s spending edge “indicates either that [Clay] underestimated her fundraising capacity and didn’t boost his own fundraising in response or that he has internal polling suggesting that he’s got a comfortable lead.”

Bush’s advantage on the airwaves suggests that a primary challenge that has attracted less national attention than other contests this cycle could be every bit as competitive.

Bush lost to Clay in the 2018 primary by nearly 20 percentage points. But in a four-candidate field, Clay, who has been in Congress since 2001, received less than 57% of the vote.

This cycle, fresh off her appearance in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” Bush has been able to raise significantly more money. And unlike 2018, she enjoys the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), successful insurgent candidate Jamaal Bowman, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action group.

“Clay has precious little money to spend because he has siphoned much of it to his sister’s law firm.”

- Sean McElwee, Data for Progress

Bush has also sought to highlight her deep roots in the Black Lives Matter movement amid growing outcry over racist policing practices.

Bush’s 30-second TV spot featured images of her participating in demonstrations.

“Lacy Clay hasn’t risen to meet this moment,” she said in the ad. “He’s presided over 20 years of decline. It’s time for a change.”

Clay responded with an ad likening Bush to President Donald Trump for paying herself a salary and falling into arrears on her state taxes, which resulted in the temporary revocation of her nursing license.

Bush attributed her tax debts to the money troubles of a single mother paying off student debt and added that she regained her nursing license after paying off what she owed. She has indeed paid herself just over $6,000 a month starting in April, a practice that is increasingly common among candidates who lack independent wealth.

Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the think tank Data for Progress, which conducts polling for Justice Democrats, blamed Clay’s reliance on family members to provide essential campaign services for his relatively modest footprint on the airwaves.

“Clay has precious little money to spend because he has siphoned much of it to his sister’s law firm,” McElwee said.

Clay’s campaign paid the law office of Michelle Clay, the congressman’s sister, $180,000 this cycle ― more than one-quarter of the entire sum Clay raised as of mid-July.

The campaign also paid nearly $30,000 to a firm run by Michelle Clay’s husband, Anthony Alexis, for “internet engineering.” Alexis’ firm, Maryland-based Evolving International Technology, is “not in good standing” with the state of Maryland because it has failed to file annual reports with the state since it came into existence in 2017. That means the firm is operating illegally, Meghann Malone, a spokesperson for Maryland’s Department of Assessments and Taxation, told HuffPost.

Members of Congress are forbidden to hire family members to work in their Capitol Hill offices, but they are permitted to employ them on their campaigns as long as they pay them a market rate for their services and the relatives do what the campaign claims they are doing.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who has represented the St. Louis area since 2001, paid the law office of his sister, Michelle Clay, $180,000 in this election cycle.
Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who has represented the St. Louis area since 2001, paid the law office of his sister, Michelle Clay, $180,000 in this election cycle.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

It’s fairly common for congressional campaigns to hire family members. In the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, 82 members of Congress from both parties paid family members through their campaigns, political action committees or other arrangements, according to a 2012 report conducted by the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The report singled out Lacy Clay as one of the members of Congress who has engaged in the practice the most. In those two cycles, he paid Michelle Clay’s firm almost $300,000. Neither election was competitive: He ran unopposed in the 2008 Democratic primary and won more than 81% of the vote in the 2010 primary. (Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, which includes St. Louis and adjacent suburbs, is not competitive in the general election.)

It is hard to know for sure whether Clay is paying his sister a market rate for her services this cycle. Her firm, located at her home address in Maryland, appears to consist of just her. All but $3,000 of the money the campaign paid her this cycle was labeled in official disclosures as having to do with fundraising and compliance.

Veteran Democratic campaign officials told HuffPost that campaigns’ total fundraising and compliance budgets rarely exceed 10% to 15% of the total money they raise. In addition to Michelle Clay’s services, the campaign paid the Washington-based fundraising firm Fraioli and Associates more than $30,000 for fundraising work and spent thousands more on fundraising venues and other expenses.

It looks like Michelle Clay provided a broader set of services than fundraising and compliance, though. The campaign referred HuffPost to her as a spokesperson.

House members are expected, though not required, to seek approval for hiring family members from the House Ethics Committee, said Kedric Payne, a former deputy chief counsel at the Office of Congressional Ethics, who is now an ethics specialist at the Campaign Legal Center.

The staff director of the House Ethics Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

Michelle Clay did not respond to an inquiry from HuffPost about whether the Clay campaign obtained formal approval for her hiring.

The Clay campaign referred all other requests for comment to Michelle Clay, who did not respond to them.

“This is a common pattern for entrenched incumbents. They don’t have tough elections, so they use campaign money to enrich family members,” said Irene Lin, a veteran Democratic campaign manager. “The donors should ask where their money is going.”

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