Steven Walters: Retiring, unopposed state legislators sit on $1.2 million in campaign cash
It's a stunning number: Retiring Wisconsin legislators, and the dozens of lawmakers who are unopposed or face third-party challengers Nov. 4, were sitting on more than $1.2 million in campaign cash July 1.
That was true of legislators from both parties, and whether they are serving their first or 12th terms, according to Government Accountability Board reports.
The largest fund balances that retiring and unopposed legislators reported were:
Republicans—Senate President Mike Ellis, $139,558; Joint Finance Committee Co-chairman 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.
Democrats—Rep. Melissa Sargent, $55,159; Joint Finance Committee member Rep. Cory Mason, $50,635; Chris Taylor, $37,587; Rep. Robb Kahl, $32,066; Rep. Jill Billings, $24,125.
If they don't need cash for re-election bids, why do they stockpile it?
Two officials who have watched campaign-finance trends for almost 34 years as leaders of nonprofit 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,” McCabe said. “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, said 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.”
But legislators now feel they must build mountains of cash, whether they are seeking re-election or not, for a much different reason, Heck added.
“Now, the size of the bank balance doesn't matter as much because a deep-pocketed outside spending group can come in and spend tens or even hundreds of thousands against an incumbent and a challenge is just as likely to emerge from the incumbent's own party as it is from the other political party.”
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 called that “a nearly meaningless definition. … As a practical matter, these 'slush funds' can be used for almost anything—and are.”
McCabe added: “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 such as 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.
Officially, McCabe said, retiring legislators can 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 other party members in close races.
Some retiring lawmakers—Democratic Rep. Fred Clark, for example—had nothing left to give, however.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at email@example.com.