When U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, lost his 2020 reelection bid, his campaign still had $1.2 million in the bank. Nearly a year later, most of the money was still there.
Gardner’s left over campaign cash isn’t unusual, however.
Two Democrats who dropped out of the same U.S. Senate contest last year still have plenty of money in their campaign accounts. One of them, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, has more than $1 million.
And state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat who in November suspended her campaign to represent the 3rd Congressional District, had nearly $615,000 in the bank when she exited the race.
When a candidate ends a congressional bid, they can choose to close their accounts or keep the money with an eye toward the future and sometimes another campaign, which the dollars can be used toward.
Tyler Sandberg, a Republican political consultant, said there’s no uniform reason campaigns keep their left over cash. “But people don’t leave that money out there for no reason. There’s always a strategy behind it.”
Federal law prohibits campaign cash from being used for personal purposes. But the Federal Election Commission isn’t always proactive in monitoring or enforcing how the left over money is used, critics say.
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Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, is among those in Congress calling for stricter measures to stop prohibited spending from so-called “zombie” accounts, where people are no longer running for office but are still spending campaign money for questionable purposes. He’s running a bill with fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to force candidates to close their campaign accounts within six months if they don’t file to run in the next federal election.
The measure would also require politicians to close their campaign accounts before registering as a lobbyist or foreign agent.
“When a politician is no longer running for office or registers as a lobbyist, they shouldn’t have millions in the bank left over from their old campaigns,” Bennet said in a written statement. “These zombie accounts help fuel the pay-to-play culture in Washington that is corroding the American people’s faith in our government.”
Rules and enforcement often neglected
Candidates can use remaining campaign money for more than just a future congressional bid.
The dollars may be used to make contributions to other federal, state and local candidates, as well as to make contributions to political parties or to charitable organizations, according to the FEC.
Money may also be used to wind down campaign operations. Gardner, for instance, paid Atlas Van Lines more than $6,700 in January from his campaign account for moving services.
The money cannot be used for personal expenses, whether a person is running for office, mulling a future bid or is retired.
“Left over campaign funds should not be a golden parachute after an elected official leaves office,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit that monitors campaign activity.
“We’ve asked the FEC to clarify the rules around this, to consider a certain point at which a campaign account has to be wound down,” Fischer added. “They haven’t taken action on that, but they have been a little more diligent in monitoring zombie campaigns.”
For instance, former Florida U.S. House Rep. Ander Crenshaw agreed to pay a nearly $4,000 fine as well as a $13,000 fee to the U.S. Treasury Department earlier this year after the FEC pursued complaints that he used left over campaign cash for personal travel after he left office in 2017.
Who still has campaign cash
A Colorado Sun review of campaign finance filings revealed that at least six failed congressional candidates in the state still had money in their accounts as of Sept. 30, when the last federal campaign finance filing period ended.
- Gardner, who had $1.02 million in his account
- Johnston, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2020, who had $1.14 million in his account
- Former U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who lost in the 2020 3rd Congressional District Republican primary, had nearly $365,000 in his campaign account
- John Walsh, a Democratic former U.S. attorney in Colorado who also ran for U.S. Senate in 2020, had $62,500 in his account
- Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat who briefly ran to represent the 7th Congressional District in 2018, had $45,000 in her account
- Dominick Moreno, another Democrat who briefly ran to represent the 7th Congressional District in 2018, had $14,000 in his account
Efforts to reach Gardner for this story were unsuccessful. Since his reelection loss, Gardner has been using money remaining in his campaign account to pay cellphone bills and for Ubers and airfare. He also spent more than $3,000 on event catering in February and a September meeting at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., a private Republican club.
Gardner is now chairman of the National Victory Action Fund, a super PAC aimed at raising money for Republican congressional candidates. According to an opinion piece by Gardner recently published in Morning Consult, he also serves as a member of the strategic advisory group to United Launch Alliance and as director of Juggernaut, a company focused on next-generation wireless technologies. “He is also a member of Michael Best Strategies’ board of advisers and serves as a strategic adviser to an investment fund in New York,” the opinion piece said.
Michael Best Strategies is a national lobbying and public affairs firm with offices in Washington, D.C., Denver and four other cities. Former Republican National Committee chairman and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is chairman of the firm’s board of advisers.
There has been speculation that Gardner may again run for a Colorado Senate seat someday, though he has been mum on his plans.
Johnston, who leads Gary Community Ventures in Denver, did not respond to messages seeking comment. He has been spending relatively small amounts of money on campaign finance compliance and other miscellaneous expenses.
Tipton couldn’t be reached for comment, but campaign finance records show he donated $2,000 last quarter to the reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican.
Walsh, who is a partner at the law firm WilmerHale, said he kept his campaign account open because of the “broad array of potential outcomes in redistricting this year.”
“Now that the dust has settled on redistricting, I’m likely to convert this to a political action committee,” he said.
Pettersen was up front about why she is keeping the money: “Because I’m going to run again when the seat opens up.”
The 7th District is currently represented by Democrat Ed Perlmutter, of Arvada.
Moreno said the money in his 2018 account is “a vestige of when I thought I might run again.” He said he plans to start the process of closing the account.
Donovan, who was running to try to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, of Garfield County, told The Sun she plans to keep at least some of the money in next year’s 3rd District race.
“We will definitely be using some of the funds to help whichever candidate makes it out of the primary to face Boebert,” she said.
After losing the 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary in 2020, James Iacino converted his campaign account to Cry Freedom PAC, which donated to a couple of other PACs, including one that opposes Boebert.
Campaign Legal Center’s Fischer said such political action committees have different rules on how they can spend money. And he agreed that there are reasons some failed candidates may hold onto their campaign money.
“There are certainly gray areas,” Fischer said. “Someone might lose one election cycle and keep their account open for future runs. It gets murkier the more time that goes on.”
Zombie account issues are nothing new
- U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, of Denver, left office in 1997, but the Democrat kept her account open until 2010. Much of Schroeder’s spending went toward other Democratic candidates, at a time when she also led the Association of American Publishers.
- U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, left the Senate in January 2005, but kept spending campaign money through 2016. The Tampa Bay Times reported he paid family members $186,000 during that period.
- U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar left the Senate in 2009 to become Secretary of the Interior Department, later joining the WilmerHale law firm as a partner. The Democrat, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, didn’t close his congressional campaign account until 2016, spending $1.2 million on charitable contributions.
More recently, former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, now a Mesa County commissioner, served in the House starting in 1993 but opted not to run for another term in 2004. The Washington Post at the time reported that the Republican continued to pay his wife for campaign management.
McInnis had $1 million in his account at the end of 2004 before converting it to a political action committee called The Western Way PAC in mid-2007.
The PAC made some political and charitable contributions, but also paid for legal fees, phone bills, computer equipment, American flags and more. When the PAC disbanded in October 2016, it still had $520,000 in the bank. McInnis said in an email that he converted the PAC to a nonprofit called The Western Way.
The organization still had $499,000 in assets in 2019, according to its tax return, and distributed no grants. Its board members are McInnis, his wife and their daughter.
And former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Republican who left the House in January 2003 and lost in the 2008 U.S. Senate race to Democrat Mark Udall, didn’t close his account until 2019.
He shut down his account by donating nearly $91,000 to six groups. That included $35,000 to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Fort Collins and $30,000 to the Leadership Program of the Rockies, a training program for potential GOP candidates led by Schaffer.