December 23, 2010 at 1:00 am

What does leftover campaign cash buy?

Unused donations fund new bids for office and reward allies

Washington -- It turns out turkey and trimmings weren't the only abundant November leftovers, at least as far as Michigan's U.S. House hopefuls were concerned. Many of them — both winners and losers — have hearty cash reserves left in their campaign accounts, despite the fact 2010 was one of the most contentious — and the most expensive — midterm elections in recent memory.

Topping the leftovers list are five Republicans re-elected in "safe" districts, where a strong GOP-leaning electorate neutered their opponents' abilities to defeat the incumbents. Rep. Dave Camp of Midland, who begins chairing the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in January, has $1.49 million left in his campaign coffers, while Rep. Mike Rogers of Brighton, the incoming chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, has just over $1.1 million.

Republican Reps. Candice Miller of Harrison Township, Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Thaddeus McCotter of Livonia round out the top five with between $500,000 and $1 million each left over.

The numbers also show a few surprises. Rep.-elect Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit, had more than $200,000 left over in his campaign account, the result of light campaign expenditures against underfunded GOP challenger John Hauler in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. And Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, spent nearly $1 million in the final couple of weeks of campaigning to forge a 17-point landslide against newcomer Republican challenger Rob Steele, the tea party-backed cardiologist from Ann Arbor. Still, he's left with just over $86,500 in his campaign coffer.

All told, on both sides of the aisle, this year's campaign leftover money amounts to more than $5.69 million. So what's a post-election politician to do with all that cash?

One could take a page from the Sarah Palin playbook and start a political action committee to funnel money and influence to candidates.

But for more average candidates lacking the necessary national name exposure and hubris needed to start a PAC, "there's basically two options," said Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. "You roll it over to your next campaign, whether re-election or something new, or you use it to curry favor."

Funding ambitions

Records maintained by the Federal Election Commission show the former — advancing one's own political ambitions — is a strong option.

More than $150,000 moved from the "Stabenow for Congress" account to the "Stabenow for U.S. Senate" coffers when Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, decided to make her move to Capitol Hill's upper chamber in 2000 after two terms in the U.S. House.

Ballenger said it's possible someone like Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, could use leftover cash to help spark a Senate run later on, though Hoekstra hasn't expressed any interest in doing so and has just $2,800 left in his U.S. House campaign accounts, federal records show.

Miller, the Republican representing Michigan's 10th U.S. House district, is another lawmaker pundits say would be a natural challenger to Stabenow in 2012, but spokeswoman Erin Sayago said the congresswoman intends "to seek re-election and will be using those resources (her leftover campaign cash) to assist her in that regard."

Sweetening the pot for fellow politicians, though, seems to be a favorite.

Bernie Porn, president of the Lansing polling and political consulting firm EPIC-MRA, said politicians contributing to each other's campaigns "isn't just common, it's expected."

Though campaign finance laws do restrict cash flows between candidates with annual contribution limits and rules on who can give to whom and how much, the regulations are complicated and more seasoned politicians — like many congressional leaders — have staffs who know how to make money move and keep it all above ground.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, for example, has given $2,000 in recent years to Stabenow's bids for Senate, and $3,000 in 2000 and 2001 to the campaign of Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Menominee.

The financial back and forth helps build alliances. Dingell was crucial in helping to broker a deal between the anti-abortion Stupak and the White House, giving the congressman from Menominee an executive order banning the use of federal money on elective abortions and President Barack Obama the votes needed to pass the sweeping legislation through the U.S. House. Stupak announced his retirement after 18 years in Congress almost immediately following his turn to support the Democrats' health care reform bill earlier this year.

A look at how Stupak used his own campaign leftovers yields some interesting results, ones Ballenger said show the full potential impact of using extra campaign cash to help build political alliances.

When Stupak took his final stand against public funding for abortion over the final weekend of March, a handful of anti-abortion Democrats stood with him. Among them were five Democrats who were recipients of campaign donations from the Stupak for Congress committee: Reps. Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan of West Virginia ($2,000 each), Reps. Chris Carney ($1,000) and Kathleen Dahlkemper ($2,000) of Pennsylvania and Rep. Steve Driehaus of Ohio ($1,000).

Other Michigan politicians are on the receiving end of money from representatives across the nation.

Rep.-elect Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, for example, defeated Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, with the financial help of Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who'll be serving as Speaker of the House when the GOP takes over the lower chamber next month and Walberg returns to office after a two-year hiatus. (Schauer beat Walberg in 2008 after the Republican from Tipton served just one term.)Aside from Boehner's $6,000 of support, Walberg's campaign has taken in donations during his 2006, 2008 and 2010 runs from high-power Republicans like Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the incoming House Majority Leader ($2,000), Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the fiery incoming chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform ($4,000 from Issa's campaign account, another $4,000 from his PAC), and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., founder of the House Tea Party Caucus ($1,000).

When Walberg arrived back in Washington after the election to stake his claim on office space and mingle with the incoming Republican majority, Walberg said he "unequivocally" supported Boehner's ascent to House Speaker.

Unusual allies

Sometimes, though, campaign cash flows make for interesting political bedfellows.

Hoekstra, the retiring congressman from Holland, gave $2,000 to Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard's 2006 campaign to take Stabenow's Senate seat.

Less than five years later, the two were pitted against each other in dueling bids for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination, which they both lost to Gov.-elect Rick Snyder, a political newcomer with not much of a campaign contributions history. Snyder's last national-level donation, according to federal filings, was for $1,000 to Dingell's 2006 Democratic re-election bid, one contested only by third-party candidates.

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Dave Camp


Mike Rogers


Candice Miller


Fred Upton


Thaddeus McCotter


Hansen Clarke