Seven senators will be calling it quits this year after a combined 168 years in the chamber. But their money will continue to work.
The millions of dollars that retiring lawmakers hold in campaign accounts and PACs will go to funding colleagues and party committees, maintaining influence, and sustaining political alliances — helpful stuff for life after Congress.
For example, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan gave to a host of politically vulnerable colleagues, according to campaign finance disclosures. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who’s retiring and will be headed to China as the Obama administration’s new ambassador, refunded $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Call it a rite of retirement among lawmakers. Just as senators before them donated to their campaigns, so retiring lawmakers are expected to donate to vulnerable members and promising challengers within their party, said David Vance of the Campaign Legal Center.
Retiring lawmakers have great flexibility in what they can do with leftover campaign money. They can pay campaign debt, hire consultants, donate to charities, help political allies — just about anything but spending on personal use.
The practice of liquidating — or banking — campaign and leadership PAC cash has a well-documented history. Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, reportedly hired a media consultant, while former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana still has about $9 million in his campaign coffers, according to the Federal Election Commission.
So far, with the FEC just reaching its year-end filing deadline and some reports not yet posted online, retiring Democratic senators have been more generous giving to campaign committees and vulnerable members than have their Republican colleagues.
Baucus’s leadership committee, Glacier PAC, gave $15,000 to the DSCC in September and almost $150,000 to Democratic Senate incumbents, including Al Franken of Minnesota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. The PAC has also given $2,500 to South Dakota Democratic Senate candidate Rick Weiland.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who left the Senate in February and began 2013 with nearly $1 million in his campaign account, donated $139,250 to the DSCC.
Levin gave to 11 Democratic candidates, all after he announced his retirement, according to FEC records. Levin, a 36-year Senate veteran with a reputation as a lover of the institution who even voted against Majority Leader Harry Reid’s so-called nuclear option last year, does not have a leadership PAC. Instead, his campaign contributed a combined $35,000 to Democrats, including Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Christopher Coons of Delaware, and Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, who’s running for the seat held by the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., gave $15,000 to the South Dakota Democratic Party but still has $1 million in cash in his campaign war chest. In Johnson’s case, his son Brendan, U.S. attorney for South Dakota, has frequently been mentioned as a rising political star and was at the center of speculation about his father’s successor before opting not to run last spring.
Johnson’s leadership PAC, South Dakota First, gave $15,000 to the DSCC before he announced his retirement plans in March. He’s also donated $10,000 to Weiland.
Harkin’s leadership committee, To Organize a Majority PAC, contributed $92,350 to vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents.
Not all the retiring senators have taken that path. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is retiring after 30 years in the Senate, has doled out relatively little so far, giving $2,000 as an in-kind contribution to now-Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
Only two Senate Republicans have announced their retirement. With the GOP seeking a majority in 2014, the two parties have taken different approaches to doling out campaign cash.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia used his leadership PAC, the Republican Majority Fund, to give $15,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and distributed nearly $100,000 to GOP Senate candidates and incumbents, including Reps. Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia and Tom Cotton in Arkansas.
Prairieland PAC, the leadership committee for Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., gave $5,000 to the campaign of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and the same amount to the Senate campaign of Mike Rounds in South Dakota.