Amid Battle for Midterms, Several Retirees Sit on Their Campaign Cash
Some lawmakers hoard millions despite pleas from their leaders.
As the midterm elections approach, 45 members of Congress are preparing to head for the exits and another 10 have already resigned, leaving behind them millions in campaign cash that won't be used for another bid for office—at least not any time soon.
Retiring members have few options when it comes to their campaign funds. They include donating the money to charity, returning it to donors or—as party leaders prefer—transferring it to other candidates, campaign committees, and PACs.
Several of the members on this year's retirement list have left their parties scrambling to maintain control of seats in neutral and enemy territory. Many have played their part, donating funds to their party's congressional candidates and other political organizations. But a few have kept their wallets closed, donating little or nothing to help the party, and reserving their excess campaign funds for other means.
Take Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, whose retirement announcement earlier this year put Democrats into panic mode. A number of missteps by Republican nominee and former Gov. Mike Rounds, however, have recently put his Senate seat back into play. Just this month, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee flooded the state with $1 million on behalf of Democratic nominee Rick Weiland, who is running in a tight second-place spot with independent candidate Larry Pressler, to see if they can get Weiland over the edge.
At the same time, Johnson—the man responsible for opening up the seat to Republicans in the first place—is sitting on nearly a million dollars in campaign cash and has yet to donate a single penny to Weiland or the DSCC this cycle.
As of Sept. 30, the most recent period for which campaign finance documents are available, Johnson had $848,000 in his campaign account. And in all of 2013 and 2014, Johnson has donated just $20,000 to other candidates. He gave $15,000 to the state Democratic Party in July of last year and another $5,000 to Susan Wismer, the Democratic nominee for governor, this past June. He also gave $30,000 this summer to Raise South Dakota, a campaign to raise the state's minimum wage.
A Johnson spokesman said that the senator, who has endorsed Weiland, does not currently have any plans to get more involved in the race for his seat.
Johnson is hardly alone on that front. Over in North Carolina, Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre announced his resignation earlier this year rather than face a second bloody race against Republican David Rouzer. That decision left Democrats with the nearly impossible task of trying to hold onto a House district that Mitt Romney won by nearly 20 points in 2012.
The 58-year-old Democrat had $430,000 left in his campaign coffers as of Oct. 15 and has not made any political contributions to candidates or committees in North Carolina or nationally this cycle. Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee for his seat, Jonathan Barfield, has raised just over $50,000 throughout his entire campaign. He's expected to lose badly to Rouzer who has raised almost $1.5 million, flipping the seat to GOP control.
A spokesman for McIntyre did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
And as Politico reported recently, retiring Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin has about $2.4 million left in his campaign account and has repeatedly refused to give any of that money to the DSCC or to Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, the party's nominee for his seat. Unlike Johnson and McIntyre, Harkin has donated some funds to help his party keep his seat; he gave $10,000 to Braley this year, has hosted numerous fundraisers for the campaign, and has donated $5,000 each to the DSCC and the state Democratic party.
Also unlike Johnson, Harkin has very specific plans for his remaining campaign money. He's giving it to Iowa's Drake University to establish a policy institute that the school is naming after him, according to Politico.
Harkin isn't the only retiree reserving cash to improve upon his legacy. Rep. Ed Pastor of Arizona has a surprising $1.25 million left in his account for a safe-district Democrat who announced his retirement all the way back in February. And that's no accident, Pastor told National Journal. Similar to Harkin, the 11-term lawmaker is working with Arizona State University, his alma mater, to establish a new public policy institute, and he plans to use the bulk of those campaign funds for that.
"We're developing—and we're right now working on it—within the College of Public Affairs [at ASU] a program to deal with public policy and politics and provide the monies for the scholarships and internships and living experience and all that good stuff," Pastor said in a phone interview.
Unlike Harkin, Pastor's seat is not in any danger and will be easily held for the party this cycle. The Arizona lawmaker has already given at least $90,000 to Democratic candidates this cycle, including $50,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $5,000 to the state party and $3,000 each to his fellow Arizona Democrats, Reps. Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpatrick, who are facing tough reelection battles. Pastor said he would continue to be involved through the end of the midterm cycle. "I'm still helping candidates. Those that I've had relationships with."¦ But the majority of the [remaining] money will be going to this project we're working on," Pastor said.
Asked if the new school would be named after him, Pastor laughed. "The name right now is the furthest thing in our mind."
Max Baucus, who left the Senate early this year to become Ambassador to China, has also given significant funds to Democratic causes,, contributing roughly $1.2 million this year to groups such as the DCCC, the Montana Democratic Party, and the state's chapter of the AFL-CIO. But as things have gotten worse for Democratic prospects in Montana, Baucus has kept his wallet closed.
The former senator still had nearly $1.1 million in his account at the end of September, and Baucus hasn't made a single contribution from his campaign account to candidates or political committees since February.
"As a nonelected official now and as an ambassador, as opposed to a politician, he thinks it's best to let that money sit until he's back into the private world in some fashion," Baucus's campaign treasurer, Shane Colton, explained in a phone interview.
That's why, Colton said, Baucus gave about $1 million to Democrats on January 31, just days before he left the Senate. Once he leaves the executive branch, Colton said, Baucus will decide how to use those remaining funds.
Republican Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin has been stingier with his campaign funds. As of September 30, Petri was sitting on about $546,000 and had not made a single political contribution since January 2013, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, when he gave $42,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
A Petri spokesman said the representative had donated funds to two state-level candidates in October, but had not given any money to either the Republican candidate for his seat, Glenn Grothman, or Gov. Scott Walker who is facing a difficult reelection battle.
"Congressman Petri does not have specific plans yet with what to do with the remaining funds," Petri spokesman Lee Brooks said in an email.
Petri has already ruled out weighing any further into the race for his own seat, telling the Fond du Lac Reporter this week that he won't endorse Grothman, even after cohosting a fundraiser for the candidate earlier this cycle. "Why would I endorse a person who has said that if in two years people said he was 'just like Petri,' he would be insulted? I don't want to smother him with love or anything like that," Petri told the paper.
Grothman, it seems, will win the contest with or without Petri's help, given the Republican makeup of his district. But Walker's potential for victory is much less clear. Recent polling shows him tied with Democrat Mary Burke.
Next door in Minnesota, Rep. Michele Bachmann is leaving behind a solidly Republican seat that her party should have no trouble holding onto this year. But her 6th District is bordered by two Democratic districts that are top GOP targets this year, and unseating Democratic Sen. Al Franken is also at the top of many Republican wishlists.
Despite those top-tier races on her home turf, Bachmann hasn't given a cent of her $1.6 million war chest to the NRCC, the NRSC, Franken challenger Mike McFadden, or to either of the Republican challengers facing off against Minnesota Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan.
McFadden could have used the boost earlier this year, when he was running in a tight race against Franken. But the incumbent now appears to have a double-digit lead in the race.
Bachmann did give $1,000 to the Republican Party organization covering her district, where GOP nominee Tom Emmer is expected to cruise to victory in November. That donation followed a $5,000 check she gave to the state party in early 2013. Her leadership PAC, aptly named Michele PAC, has also given $17,500 to Republican members of the House this cycle, but only to two Minnesotans: Emmer and Republican Rep. John Kline.
Over the same period, Bachmann has transferred at least $385,000 from her congressional campaign account to her 2012 presidential committee, which had just under $11,000 on hand and nearly $46,000 in debts at the end of September. The funding from Bachmann's congressional campaign account and other sources has gone to pay debts from the campaign as well as for accounting and legal fees as the campaign remains under investigation for allegedly paying off a state senator in Iowa and other accusations.
A spokeswoman for Bachmann did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's district also appears to be a lock for Republicans this cycle. Nonetheless, it appears that David Brat's victory in Virginia last July wasn't just a loss for Cantor, but also for Republican candidates across the country. Cantor flooded Virginia's 7th District with cash in the final weeks of his primary campaign, leaving precious little left to support the House majority. In fact, Cantor made only one contribution to another candidate in 2014, giving $5,400 to New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez for her reelection, and he hasn't made any other contributions since.
Cantor ended September with just over $48,000 left in his congressional campaign account, after refunding thousands of dollars in general-election donations to his supporters and paying off more than $325,000 in debts. Even most of that money is now gone, says Cantor consultant Ray Allen, who added that the account would soon be closed out entirely. "We had to raise money to pay our debt," Allen said.
Cantor still has about $469,000 left in his leadership PAC's account, as of Oct. 15. But ERICPAC hasn't made a single donation to another candidate or committee since June 6, four days before he lost the GOP primary to Brat. Before the loss, ERICPAC typically contributed campaign funds to 20 to 30 candidates per month.
Before the fund became inactive, ERICPAC contributed to every Republican House incumbent in the state as well as to Republican Barbara Comstock, who is locked in a competitive race for retiring Republican Rep. Frank Wolf's seat.
Unfortunately for Virginia Senate Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, his name never made it onto that list. Gillespie is being outspent about 9-to-1 in the race against Sen. Mark Warner, according to OpenSecrets, and he's trailing in the polls as well.
Allen declined to comment on the leadership PAC's inactivity.
As with Bachmann's and Cantor's seats, Republicans will easily hold on to outgoing Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp's district in November. And Camp has helped out plenty, giving more than $1 million to Republican causes this year, including the NRCC, the state Republican Party, and the party's nominee for the Senate, Terri Lynn Land.
But despite those contributions, Camp still has the largest war chest of any retiring member this year, by a long shot. He clocked in at $2.3 million left in the bank at the end of September.
The question is, what does Camp plan to do with all of that cash? Camp's staff did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but the Michigan Republican has been floated as a potential statewide candidate in the past. He took a pass on the race for retiring Sen. Carl Levin's seat this year, choosing instead to focus on pushing a tax reform through Congress. When House leaders indicated that the reform package was going nowhere before his chairmanship ends this year, Camp announced his retirement.
That campaign cash and his 24-year tenure in the House could boost Camp in a future race. But he'll have a few years to think about it. Both Levin's seat and the Governor's Mansion are up for grabs this November, and Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow won't face reelection until 2018.