Politicians quit Congress, but their ‘zombie’ campaigns stagger on with millions in the bank

The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Republican Michele Bachmann hasn’t set foot in the U.S. Capitol as an elected member of Congress from Minnesota for at least six years.

Although she recently made news for asking God to help reelect President Donald Trump and telling a television show that “transgender Black Marxists” are trying to overthrow the country, none of that appears to be tied to any new bid for Congress.

But you might not be able to tell if you look up Bachmann for Congress, the campaign committee the firebrand conservative last used during the 2012 election cycle. Not only is it still an active political entity, it has more than $1.6 million of donor money sitting in the bank.

The federal body that regulates campaign finance has some questions about that.

Bachmann is just one of about two dozen former House candidates in Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Virginia and around the country — including one who died in 2018 — who received recent letters from the Federal Election Commission basically asking them: What does this campaign committee even do anymore?

Former U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns. Credit: Congress.gov

These kinds of idle but active campaigns have been colloquially dubbed zombie campaigns. It’s the third time the FEC has pestered them with letters since the Tampa Bay Times published a 2018 investigation into questionable spending by former members of Congress.

The FEC asked the zombies’ treasurers to clarify their plans for the committees and potentially pay back any charges that could be classified as personal expenses, which would be a misuse of campaign funds.

“Your most recent report discloses a significant amount of residual cash on hand. Please explain the committee’s intended use of the residual campaign funds,” the letters state. “Be aware that committee assets, including cash-on-hand, may not be converted to personal use.”

In Bachmann’s case, the FEC asked the campaign to explain six charges of roughly $100 per month for “rent” and “storage” of “campaign materials,” and another payment to an accounting firm.

Bachmann’s campaign responded to a similar FEC letter in January defending the storage fees as acceptable campaign charges. It told the FEC it would dispose of her campaign money in its own time but did not mention whether Bachmann had any plans to run for office ever again.

‘Someone’s watching’

That’s the reason the FEC sends these letters, said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance expert at the Washington, D.C., law firm Harmon Curran. The FEC may not be able to prove the candidate would never run for office again. But officials want to let them know, at least, that someone’s watching their spending.

“There’s not much the FEC can do about it. There’s no requirement that they wind down within a certain period of time,” Kappel said. “Which is why they keep sending them these letters. They’re basically harassing them into giving the money away, or, you know, doing something with it.”

When reached on his cellphone, Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, who operates a Christian counseling service in Minnesota, said he would pass a request for comment on to his wife, but she did not return the call.

Other than those charges and tax payments, Bachmann’s campaign committee has donated tens of thousands of dollars this election cycle to churches and Christian advocacy groups, while earning minimal amounts in what appears to be accrued bank interest and two payments totaling just more than $600 from a conservative email list company.

Also a recipient of a letter was former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, who served Arizona from 1991 until his retirement in 2015. His committee would have a difficult time proving any campaign expenses were legitimate, however, because he died in 2018.

With only $97,000 in the bank, Pastor’s campaign has been paying about $1,500 per year for storage. It’s not the first time the FEC has questioned the nature of those expenses, either.

In April, the campaign noted in a short letter to the FEC that, per their phone call with a campaign regulator, the campaign is “working with the spouse of Congressman Pastor to terminate the committee” and donate surplus funds “to other candidate committees and/or charitable organizations.”

In Michigan, former Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Camp’s campaign treasurer assured the FEC earlier this year he’s in the process of converting his campaign committee to a political action committee and that it would be done by Dec. 1. Two weeks later, Camp’s campaign committee remains active. His treasurer did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Camp, who retired in 2015 and is now a tax analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers, has donated to charities and other candidates throughout the year, but the campaign also appears to accrue tens of thousands of dollars per year in interest from the roughly $2 million it holds in the bank. Holding donor money in an interest bearing or investment account is completely legal.

Florida angle

Similarly, Cliff Stearns, a former GOP congressman from Florida who has become a lobbyist for APCO Worldwide since losing a 2012 primary to now-U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, has taken heat in the past for the amount of interest his campaign committee nets and for making payments to his wife for bookkeeping.

In 2019, Stearns hinted he might run again if Yoho retired, but when Yoho did retire the next year, Stearns didn’t run. In a January letter to the FEC, Stearns’ wife, Joan, wrote that they are going to close the committee down at some point in the future.

In the meantime, the campaign made almost $230,000 in interest through Vanguard and T. Rowe Price this election cycle while spending less than $100,000, some of which went to Joan Stearns’ $1,000 monthly fee for accounting services and a monthly internet plan through Cox Communications. Stearns did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt, a Republican who retired from his Virginia seat in 2017 and is now the dean of Liberty University’s government school, has received letters about his still-active campaign committee in the past, but only answered for the first time this month about his plans for the roughly $120,000 he has left in the bank.

“The committee intends to make donations to other committees from the residual funds on hand,” his campaign said in a letter to the FEC. “There are no immediate plans to terminate or convert the committee to a multicandidate committee, but those options may be considered at some future time.”