Some campaigns are still sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars after Election Day. Here’s how they can legally use those funds.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Thousands of ballots are still being counted in Oregon and Washington, and a number of races remain undecided — but the election campaigns that filled our eyes and ears with slogans and ads over the preceding months are now over. We can breathe a sigh of relief, perhaps, for that.
But all that electioneering didn’t come cheaply. The Oregon governor’s race, for instance, was by far the most expensive of all time, with fundraising topping $65 million for just the top three candidates. In fact, this was likely the most expensive midterm election in U.S. history.
Especially toward the end of the race, candidates were spending money as quickly as it came in. But for candidates who ended the election with a balance in their campaign “bank account,” what happens to all that money? This is a question that at least a dozen viewers have asked us.
Two days after Election Day, Republican candidate for governor Christine Drazan still has over $157,000 after spending more than $22 million during the course of the campaign. Democrat Tina Kotek, the apparent governor-elect, has almost $900,000 remaining after spending more than $28 million. And unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson has over $400,000, having spent nearly $17 million.
The Oregon Secretary of State’s office told us, in short, that leftover campaign funds can be used for any lawful purpose other than personal use. “Personal use” would include things like paying for groceries, a mortgage, tickets to a concert or a personal loan payment.
Here’s a short list of what the rules say those funds can be used for: To defray any expenses incurred in connection with the candidate’s duties as a public office holder, contributed to another committee, given to charity or used “for any other lawful purpose.”
That all seems incredibly vague. To find out precisely what that means, we asked someone who deals with these matters frequently; Republican strategist Rebecca Tweed, who provided commentary during KGW’s election night broadcast.
Tweed said that if strategists like her have done their jobs right, campaigns will have spent every last penny — especially underdog campaigns that aimed to win. But it rarely works out that cleanly.
We asked Tweed about some edge cases; for instance, can a winning candidate justify spending leftover campaign funds on massages or hair styling, ostensibly to help them look and feel the part of a politician?
“I will just say, a lot of them need to be doing that. We could use some makeup for some legislators!” Tweed joked. “You know, technically they could, but it’s very rare that it ever happens. I mean, I think most folks want to be really respectful of how that money was contributed. Often times people will use their PAC dollars to attend conferences so that they’re not using state funds or tax dollars — so there’s always a little bit of discretion there.”
Most candidates will either hold on to the money for their next campaign, Tweed said, or donate it to another candidate’s future campaign. They can’t put it in their pockets unless they personally loaned the campaign money, in which case they can pay themselves back. But they can buy furniture for their office or hire a family member to serve as staff.
“Again there’s some pretty strict examinations from the Secretary of State on it to, you know, approve those expenses,” Tweed said. “Treasurers kind of know the rules … but it certainly can’t pay for trips to Hawaii, unfortunately.”
“You know, over the last 15 years there have been a few things that have tightened up that nepotism, which I think is a really negative term. It has a lot of negative connotations,” Tweed continued. “But for a lot of legislators, you know, they’re spending six months away from home. They’re not going back there every day unless you live in the Portland metro area. So, their spouses decide to move to Salem with them or move somewhere nearby and can work in the legislature, certainly they can use campaign funds for that.”
There’s a difference, too, between rules governing races for office within Oregon and those for federal office, like members of Congress. The latter is overseen by the Federal Election Commission, or FEC.
Here’s a good case study for how federal election finance rules and complaints work out: Republican Alek Skarlatos, a candidate for Oregon’s 4th Congressional District who just ran against Democrat Val Hoyle, was the subject of a campaign finance complaint last year.
After a failed 2020 bid for the 4th District seat, the Associated Press reported that Skarlatos used $93,000 in leftover campaign cash to seed his own nonprofit veterans group, called the 15:17 Trust. But when he decided in 2021 to run for the seat again, the nonprofit transferred $65,000 back to his campaign.
The Democratic-aligned group End Citizens United filed a complaint against Skarlatos, accusing him of self-dealing by using the nonprofit as a slush fund. But the FEC sided with Skarlatos — determining that the nonprofit had been relatively inactive and returned the cash in a fairly short window, essentially calling it a wash. The matter was dropped after that.