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

By T.W. Farnam
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.

"Candidates like these are in the minority," said Dave Levinthal of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. "Most of them are bringing it in and spending it just as fast."

President Obama finished his 2008 campaign with about $30 million in the bank - money that many thought he would carry into his reelection fight. Much of the money was spent in the past two years, however, including $3 million used to help fund Democratic House and Senate campaigns this year. Obama has $3 million left to seed his reelection campaign.

Two tea party-backed Republicans whose Senate candidacies received a lot of attention this year ended their campaigns with almost $1 million each in the bank. But they both lost, leading to criticisms that perhaps they didn't spend enough.

Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell recently reported $925,000 in the bank, despite having blamed Republicans for her defeat, saying they had not provided enough financial support. In the final days of the campaign, O'Donnell's staff had trouble placing some of her advertising because there was no airtime available.

O'Donnell's campaign spent $263,000 after the election, including a $798 bill for food and drink at the Roma Italian Restaurant in Dover on Nov. 20, records show.

Former O'Donnell campaign staff members did not respond to requests for comment, and a message left with the campaign headquarters was not returned.

Alaskan Joe Miller, who decided this week not to contest the certification of Sen. Lisa Murkowski's reelection, had $980,000 left at the end of his campaign. Miller defeated Murkowski in the GOP primary but lost the general election by 10,000 votes after she decided to run as a write-in candidate.

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