Despite record spending, politicians still have $400 million in campaign funds

This year produced a number of winners and losers -- from the tea party and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to President Obama and the House ethics committee.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 7:10 PM

Although this year marked the most expensive midterm campaign in U.S. history, that doesn't mean that all the political money has been spent. Federal lawmakers and former candidates still have almost $400 million left in the bank.

In a political world reliant on a constant source of campaign cash, money can be power, and many sitting lawmakers have been stockpiling checks since they came into office. Most of the time, they are keeping it to scare off or prepare for potential challengers or to finance an ambition for leadership or higher office.

Sen. John Thune is a typical example. The South Dakota Republican, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, has $7.2 million in his campaign fund, according to the latest reports, which cover the period through the middle of November. Thune was unopposed this year, but he still raised $6 million and spent about half of that.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has about $10.3 million in the bank. Schumer, who has used his close ties to Wall Street to raise a hoard of money for the Democratic Party, has widely reported leadership ambitions. He is seen as the most likely successor to Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.) as the next Democratic Senate leader.

Schumer has used money to help colleagues who are essential to his rise in the ranks. His campaign committee has donated $5.4 million to the Democratic Party and its candidates in the past decade, including $1 million to help fund Senate races this year.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) has the largest campaign account of any lawmaker or candidate, with $17.2 million in cash on hand. Shelby has easily raked in campaign checks as the ranking Republican on the Senate banking committee, which overseas the Wall Street bankers and traders who are the biggest source of campaign money.

At the same time, Shelby has faced only token opposition in his reelection campaigns. He beat his latest challenger by 30 percentage points.

"Senator Shelby has built his campaign fund brick by brick over time," said his spokesman, Jonathan Graffeo. "He has never taken a race for granted and always works diligently to ensure that he's prepared for any potential challenger. Senator Shelby has also donated generously to Republican candidates from his PAC."

After Shelby runs his last campaign, it's unclear what will happen to his bank account. At 76 and with no apparent ambition for higher office or Senate leadership, Shelby will probably give some lucky organization a windfall after he retires.

Campaign money cannot be used for personal expenses under election law. Candidates are allowed to use it for a future federal or state race, dole it out to other candidates in small chunks or give unlimited amounts to their state and national parties. The money can also be used to seed a charity or nonprofit.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who did not run for reelection this year, has $10.3 million in his campaign accounts. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used millions left over from his 2008 presidential run to fund his Senate reelection this year, overcoming a primary challenge from talk radio host and former representative J.D. Hayworth. He's still got millions left, but it is tied up in a special account that has more than the usual restrictions.

The $400 million sitting in campaign accounts is evenly split between the two parties. It's also controlled by a small number of politicians.

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