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News / Politics

As 2023 started, 18 House and Senate campaigns were in debt

By Kate Ackley, CQ-Roll Call
Published: March 19, 2023, 6:00am

WASHINGTON — As lawmakers wrangle over the nation’s debt, 18 members of the House and Senate started this year with campaign committees that each reported at least $100,000 in unpaid bills.

All told, the 15 Republicans and three Democrats owed consultants, advertising firms and other vendors a total of nearly $6 million, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission reports through Dec. 31 by OpenSecrets for CQ Roll Call. The debts do not include money that candidates loaned to their own campaigns, which totaled an additional $17.3 million, some of it stretching back to 2010.

“From a legal, anti-corruption perspective, it’s very important that campaigns pay off their debts,” said Adav Noti, senior vice president and legal director at the Campaign Legal Center, a political money watchdog group. “If they don’t, then they have gotten something for free, and that can be a way to buy influence over officeholders.”

Noti pointed out, though, that many unpaid campaign bills “are really just paper debts that are on there because of the way the billing invoice cycle happens to break across a reporting period.”

Some of the indebted senators, such as Republican Johnson of Wisconsin and Democrat Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, just won costly campaigns last year and won’t need to decide whether to mount a reelection campaign for years to come. But some battleground House members, who can expect to face expensive reelection campaigns should they run next year, may feel extra pressure to raise money, as outside groups also gear up for big races.

All the lawmakers with unpaid bills reported at least some cash on hand, and three of them held more than enough to erase their debts. Lawmakers from New York and California dominated among the House members who were in the red, a reflection of the high cost of advertising in those states.

OpenSecrets tabulated that candidates and outside groups spent a record $8.9 billion on the 2022 midterm races. The group’s Brendan Glavin, a senior data analyst, said Democratic candidates outspent Republican candidates in the cycle, while GOP-aligned outside groups outspent their Democratic-aligned counterparts.

The campaign debt, he added, may be a function of the overall picture of increasing money in politics.

“The amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars coming into these races from national groups, namely the super PACs that are associated with party leadership, are the biggest players,” Glavin said. “It puts pressure on the candidate to get out there and spend more. Races cost a lot more than they used to.”

GOP firm owed $2.4 million

Among the lawmakers who reported unpaid campaign bills are several who have made the nation’s debt — and the current debate about raising the debt limit to pay outstanding bills — a campaign messaging point.

The GOP consulting firm Targeted Victory was owed the most from the 18 lawmakers, the FEC filings show. Johnson, Oklahoma GOP Sen. Markwayne Mullin and California Republican Rep. Michelle Steel owed the firm a total of $2.4 million as of Dec. 31. North Carolina’s new Republican senator, Ted Budd, owed $290,000 to the firm TAG LLC for social media and online fundraising. And a trio of campaigns owed the GOP firm Axiom Strategies a total of about $270,000, including for consulting services and bonus payments.

The House lawmakers whose campaigns held at least $100,000 in debt include some that hail from the congressional districts that attracted the most in outside spending in 2022, such as freshman GOP Rep. John Duarte, who won a hotly contested seat in California’s 13th District. His campaign had nearly $120,000 in unpaid bills as of Dec. 31, when his cash on hand was about $25,000. Outside groups poured more than $13.4 million into the race, according to a Daily Kos Elections analysis.

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Outside groups spent almost $9 million on the race won by Rep. Pat Ryan, a Democrat from New York’s 18th District, while 22nd District New York Republican Brandon Williams’ race pulled in more than $10 million, Daily Kos found.

Nebraska GOP Rep. Don Bacon was left with about $14,000 and nearly $140,000 in unpaid bills, including $68,000 in outstanding payroll, his campaign filing shows. Bacon, along with Duarte, Steel and Williams, is among the 18 Republicans who won last year in districts that backed President Joe Biden in 2020, making them likely targets in 2024.

Florida Republican Rep. Cory Mills had $385,000 in debt and $26,000 in cash to start the year. Separately, he loaned his campaign more than $1.8 million. Mills said in a statement emailed from an aide that campaign-related debts are “quite common” and noted that much of his campaign’s debts were owed to himself.

“I worked hard for this and it’s really unfortunate campaigns are now an industry themselves and [have] become so expensive,” Mills said in the statement. “The financial cost to myself personally however is nothing compared to the cost to all Americans if we don’t save our Republic.”

Paying off debt

GOP Rep. Mike Flood of Nebraska, who won a special election in June and then had to quickly defend the seat to win a full term in November, had less than $7,000 and unpaid bills of $215,000 as of Dec. 31.

“In 2022, Congressman Flood waged an aggressive campaign through four competitive elections, all in the span of less than seven months,” his campaign spokesman, Matthew Trail, said in an email. “The Flood campaign is working hard to retire its obligations and gear up for 2024.”

The most recent disclosures for campaigns cover the period ending Dec. 31 and were due to the FEC on Jan. 31, so some lawmakers may have subsequently settled their accounts.

The campaign of California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert “no longer has any unpaid obligations,” said a spokesperson.

Some of the campaigns did have enough money to cover the unpaid bills, including the campaign of Steel, who represents a battleground California district that Biden won by 6 percentage points in 2020. A Steel campaign aide said the outstanding bills had been subsequently paid off. FEC filings covering activities from Jan. 1 through March 31 are due on April 15.

Campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel said there are typically three reasons why campaigns don’t pay off debt when they have the cash on hand. First, they may be waiting for additional invoices to roll in before they pay off vendors in full. Second, there may be a dispute over payments.

Third, candidates may continue to raise money to retire debt without having to then file to run for reelection, or a different office.

“When you start raising new money, once you pass $5,000, you have to tell whether you’re going to run for reelection, or run for another seat,” he said.

The Campaign Legal Center’s Noti said that winning candidates typically find it easy to raise money to retire their outstanding bills, while losers usually find themselves in a predicament.

“For those who rack up debt and win, there’s all sorts of people who are interested in helping them pay off their debts,” he said, noting that it can seem somewhat “unseemly” because donors already know the outcome of the election. “There have been various attempts over the years to limit the amount of post-election fundraising, because it really doesn’t look great. But they are striking a balance because they need to pay off the debt.”