Goodbye, Campaigns. Hello, New Campaign Contributions

The campaign for U.S. Senate is over, but the accounting is not. The latest batch of campaign finance reports show Democrat Mark Begich spent nearly $10 million, and Sen.-elect Dan Sullivan spent$7.6 million, pushing the total spent on the race to $60 million. 

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Congressional campaigns often end in debt. Holly Robichaud, a Republican political consultant unconnected to Alaska, says she actually advises her clients to spend more than they’ve got.

“If you win you can raise lots of money. If you lose, usually people help bail you out if you don’t get into too much debt. You never want to lose a race because you didn’t spend the $500 that would’ve really made the difference,” she said.

But, after the most expensive election in state history, neither of Alaska’s U.S. Senate candidates appears to have taken that sort of advice. The campaigns aren’t closed out yet, but Sullivan reported no debt and $277,000 cash on hand on Nov. 24, the end of the reporting period. Begich showed more cash than debt, by about $7,000, on that date.  Without net debt, a candidate can’t accept contributions made after the election. But that doesn’t mean contributors aren’t eager to help.

Consider Altria PAC. Altria is the company that owns tobacco giant Philip Morris. Its PAC sent the Sullivan campaign $5,000 two weeks after Election Day. It had previously given $5,000 to Begich.

Kathy Kiely is a campaign finance expert at the Sunlight Foundation came up with a name for that: “strategic gift revision.”

“That’s the perfect illustration I think, that (of) the pragmatism of the big political players. Really, it’s all about influence. And so he’s a senator now and they are looking to make friends,” she said.

But, whatever AltriaPAC intended, a spokesman for Sen.-Elect Dan Sullivan says the campaign is sending that money back. Altria, he said, mistakenly believed the campaign had debt to pay off. According to FEC rules on post-election fundraising, a campaign must have more debt than cash on the day it receives a check in order to keep the money. (Sullivan reported to the FEC that he received some $44,000 between Election Day and Nov. 24. The campaign, though, says nearly all of that was actually sent before Election Day. Begich reported receiving $435 after Election Day. The only contribution large enough to be itemized — $100 from a Juneau physician – was received Nov. 5.)

Altria responded to our requests for an interview about its contributions in the Alaska race with an email describing the company’s commitment to transparency. It appeared to be lifted from the company website. But on the same day AltriaPAC contributed to Sullivan, they also contributed to a raft of other freshmen who won tough races, in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Georgia and North Carolina. Those other candidates do appear to be able to accept the money to pay off their campaign debt. Kiely says that shows the incumbent advantage in fundraising starts early, even before a senator is sworn in.

“So you can see that right away, people who want to be the first in your door with a nice pleasant green handshake and hope that you’ll remember them when the time comes to cast your vote,” she said.

In any case, Altria and other would-be Sullivan supporters need not wait any longer to make their campaign contributions. Sullivan this month registered a new campaign committee with the FEC for his next Senate run. Just as Begich did, a few weeks after his election in 2008. In another rite of freshman passage in the Senate, Sullivan also established a leadership PAC this month: True North PAC. Leadership PACs allow senators to raise money from donors beyond the strict limits of campaign contributions. Lawmakers use them to fund certain expenses and to make campaign contributions to other candidates.

Now, since it’s the holiday season, let’s take a non-cynical view of money in politics. Despite widespread belief that campaign cash sways a lawmaker’s decisions, there’s little research to prove it.

“It’s just really hard to separate out the fact that people tend to give to those that agree with them,” says David Broockman. He’s a political science PhD candidate at Berkeley who ran a clever experiment that suggests contributions DO result in better access. He had emails sent to nearly 100 congressional offices saying they had a group from that lawmaker’s district who wanted to meet with the congress member, or top staffers. Broockman says the meeting requests differed in just one way: Half the offices were told the participants would be local constituents. The other half were told the participants would be local campaign donors.

“When the individuals were revealed to be donors they received access at that level almost 20 percent of the time. Whereas, when the group was only revealed to be constituents they received that access just over 5 percent of the time,” he said. “So we’re talking about a nearly four-fold increase.”

Even that could have a more innocent explanation, Broockman says: Lawmakers and congressional staff may think donors are savvier about policy and thus more worth their time.