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Planes, trains and campaign finance reports — the bane of every Senate candidate

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) views a tribute video honoring Lindy Boggs produced by Paul Bell, left, her digital media director and deputy press secretary. (Rex C. Curry for The Washington Post)

This post was updated at 4:15 p.m.

Going into 2014, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D) staff knew it was going to be a tough slog. She last won election in a banner year for Blue Dog Democrats in 2008 and is attempting a repeat in an off-year campaign where nearly everything is in her opponent's favor. That opponent, likely to be Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, just outraised her for the first time.

And now, state Republicans have given her the nickname "Air Mary" -- a reference to her use of a charter airplane funded in large part by taxpayers.

CNN revealed  this week that one of her flights was used for campaign events, which is a violation of Senate ethics rules. Her staffers said the billing was sent to the wrong place and the error was fixed before CNN's report dropped. But the GOP is going with it, and plenty of news stories have been written about her aviation history.

In such a red state, Landrieu needs to run something close to a flawless campaign, and ethics violations aren't really part of that recipe. However, Landrieu is only the latest in a long line of candidates tripped up by the logistics involved in being a member of Congress and a candidate for Congress at the same time.

The "This American Life" podcast on campaign finance, "Take the Money and Run for Office," is a good primer on the lengths Congress goes to to fulfill the restraining order that government has against campaign fundraising. This can entail having representatives walking down the street from their office to make campaign calls for hours before returning to the Capitol to vote. As candidates have needed to raise more money to be competitive, they've had to be even more careful to not confuse work and treasure-hunting for donors.

Ethics rules for travel have proved one on the biggest tripping points for candidates. If candidates use a taxpayer-funded flight for constituent services, but make  a campaign stop along the way, they are treading in a gray area that is sure to get attention. If their staff accidentally pays for a campaign trip with taxpayer funds, they'll be in even more trouble. If they try to hide it, things get pretty ugly.

In 2011, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) filed political flights as official travel, which she quickly paid back as soon as the news got out. This March, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) faced accusations that she billed taxpayers for campaign travel. Former Alaska state representative Alan Dick (R) mixed campaign and official travel. In 2012, former secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius gave a speech in which she ended up endorsing a candidate. The trip was paid for by the government, and Sebelius was accused of violating the Hatch Act. Her office quickly reclassified the trip from official to political and reimbursed the Treasury Department. 

Most of the errors in travel expensing made by high-profile politicians are a result of paperwork being pushed in the wrong direction, and are usually fixed quickly as soon as the mistake is realized -- or, as often, publicized. Taken as a whole, the endless blips of ethics violations are a sign of how the metabolism of campaigning has made it increasingly difficult to make governing a fortress apart from the trail. And if you do, people will still be unimpressed. If politicians are going to keep constituent services and campaigning separate -- and still do an ample amount of both -- they are going to have to take more trips. If they also want to have time to pass laws, they'll have to do this travel relatively quickly. That means flying, which means articles being written about how much you fly. It's a no-win situation especially for politicians who live far from Washington.

However, all that paperwork has been buffered by an even greater number of guides for how to avoid committing ethics violations. To make the best of an impossible situation, maybe everyone on a close Senate campaign (or anybody in Congress, really) should do a bit of light reading before the fall to prepare.

Or, perhaps the solution is avoiding travel all together. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is running against Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, rented a campaign bus from her father's company, which led to questions about whether her campaign received a discount, as detailed in Politico today. The Grimes campaign says they researched bus pricing and found that their pricing was not atypical. Other senators have been chastised for using chartered jets. Presidential will-he-won't-he-in-2016 Mike Huckabee has seen his private plane habit ridiculed, as has Hillary Clinton.

Walking is always an option. Iowa Sen. Dick Clark (D) walked across the state while campaigning for reelection in 1977. He lost. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) tried the same in New Hampshire when he was running in the 1996 Republican presidential primary. He even wore a plaid shirt. But he lost.

So maybe don't try walking. In the end, becoming an immobile politician may still be the best option. Given all the tweets and Google Hangouts a politician must endure anyway, the first tele-campaigning candidate could be a real trendsetter.


Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.



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