Unopposed Legislators Still Love Campaign Cash
Retiring and unopposed legislators are sitting on $1.2 million in donations.
It’s a stunning number: Retiring Wisconsin legislators, and the dozens of legislators who are unopposed or face low-profile, third-party challengers on Nov. 4, had more than $1.2 million in campaign cash on July 1. That included lawmakers from both parties, and whether they are serving their first or 12th terms, according to Government Accountability Board reports.
The largest fund balances retiring and unopposed legislators reported were:
Republicans – Senate President Mike Ellis, $139,558; Joint Finance Committee Cochairman Rep. John Nygren, $95,320; Sen. Leah Vukmir, $61,136; Joint Finance Committee Member Rep. Dale Kooyenga, $57,467; Rep. Dean Kaufert, $45,540; ex-Rep. Chad Weininger, $39,012; Rep. Mary Czaja, $38,341; Rep. John Murtha, $35,474; Rep. Bill Kramer, $34,265; Assembly Majority Leader Pat Strachota, $33,368; Rep. Rob Swearingen, $31,259; Rep. Kevin Petersen, $28,747.
If they don’t need cash for re-election bids, why do they stockpile cash? Two officials who have watched campaign-finance trends for almost 34 years as leaders of non-profit advocacy groups had explanations.
Mike McCabe retires Jan. 1 as director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign contributors, how much they give and total spending by candidates, PACs and third-party independent groups. “Legislators amass war chests to scare away competition while they are in office,” he says. “If they have huge sums of money in their campaign accounts, they are much less likely to face a strong opponent in their next bid for re-election.”
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, says that was how the practice started: “These ‘war chests’ were usually built up to discourage any strong challenger from taking a shot at the incumbent.”
For example, Heck added, “Had Ellis not decided to throw in the towel last April, Wisconsin Club for Growth or some other right-wing group would not have hesitated to go after him.”
When they leave office, legislators can keep their campaign funds open or close them out. Officially, the balances can only be used for “political purposes,” but Heck calls that “a nearly meaningless definition… As a practical matter, these ‘slush funds’ can be used for almost anything – and are.”
McCabe adds: “While they are not supposed to personally benefit from the use of funds collected from political donors, I have seen enough questionable expenses on campaign finance reports over the years to know that many politicians do try to find ways to use these funds for what appear to be personal expenses.”
Legislators have used campaign funds to pay themselves what they say were old campaign-related costs like unclaimed mileage, meals and hotel bills. Democratic Rep. Brett Hulsey bought an old convertible with campaign cash, saying he needed it for parades and other political events to run in the Democratic primary for governor.
McCabe said state law lets retiring legislators give the money back to the donors, “which they almost never do.” They can also donate it to charities or “sit on the money, hedging against a possible run for some office.” Kaufert, for example, said he will hang on to his $45,540 so it’s available in 2018, when he may need it to run for something else. He was elected Neenah mayor in April; his Assembly career ends in January.
Finally, McCabe said, retiring or unopposed legislators can “seek to continue to influence political affairs by doling out money to political party committees and candidates they favor, which is a very common practice.” Sometimes, party leaders tell legislators how much – what percentage or a specific amount – they must contribute to help members of their party in close races.
But some retiring lawmakers – Democratic Rep. Fred Clark, for example – had nothing left to give. That makes him a pretty old-fashioned politician.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the non-profit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org