BY: Ashley Balcerzak, Jack Noland, and SooRin Kim
The 2016 election is over. Ballots have been cast, and (most) federal candidates know the outcome of their hard-fought races.
Yet company PACs and even individuals are still writing checks to candidates' campaign committees, even though the campaigns they're funding are done.
"Giving after the election clearly shows the donation is not given to support the election of a specific candidate based on shared ideology or to see robust democracy, but to endear themselves to the particular candidate," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen.
Running a federal campaign is an expensive business, to say the least. Candidates can end the political season hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in debt.
There were 145 winners with campaign debt as of mid-October, with a total $26.5 million to pay off between them. That's an average of $182,766, stretching from Paul Mitchell's (R-Mich.) more than $3.1 million to California Democrat Grace Napolitano's $126 outstanding. Senate races, on balance, are more expensive, and the eight Senate winners with debt owed an average of $219,270.
Needless to say, helping balance a candidate's checkbook might get a PAC or other donor off to a good start with an incoming lawmaker.
While there are similar numbers of Republican and Democratic candidates on the list - 79 and 66, respectively - the partisan divide is striking. GOP candidates account for almost $18.7 million of the total debt, or an average of $236,343, almost exactly double the average $118,635 Dems owe.
Since our pool of candidates with debt is so large, let's look just at newbies who beat out veteran lawmakers. Incumbents lost their seats in 18 races; post-election reports, due Dec. 8, haven't shown up on the FEC's site for three of them. The 15 we were able to look at reaped reaped almost $71,000 in donations after Nov. 8.
Republican Don Bacon of Nebraska pulled in the most post-election dough with almost $25,000, almost five times the average $4,700 haul. As of late November, Bacon held $40,000 in debt and had about $37,000 cash on hand.
Bacon's biggest post-election contribution came from the Kutak Rock PAC, which wrote a $5,000 check on Nov. 11. But the Nebraska-based firm's loyalty hasn't always been for the Republican; earlier in the election cycle, the PAC wrote several checks totaling $4,500 to Bacon's Democratic counterpart, Rep. Brad Ashford. Chris Hawkins of the Hawkins Construction Company (also a Nebraska native), who had kept quiet throughout the cycle, also sent $2,000 to Bacon only after the election.
Other post-election donors to Bacon's campaign include Texas Republicans United PAC ($1,500), Tucker Bridwell of the Texas oil giant Concho Resources ($1,000), politically active K&L Gates PAC ($1,000) and National Association of Federal Credit Unions PAC ($1,000).
Post-election donations to freshmen who defeated incumbents*
*FEC data through Nov. 28
So who are some of the PACs we saw giving to these winners and other politicians? The American Society of Anesthesiologists PAC gave $5,000 each to two incoming Democrat freshman who bested incumbents, incoming Rep. Charlie Crist in Florida and soon-to-be Sen. Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, as well as $2,500 to Nanette Barragan, a Democrat in California. The reports labeled these post-election checks as "2016 general election debt."
The anesthesiologists' PAC is pretty active, having contributed more than $1.35 million to federal candidates in the 2016 cycle. Of that total, $31,000 went to members of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, including ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The PAC also gave $37,500 to House Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions subcommittee members, contributing $17,500 to Rep. Joe Heck's unsuccessful Nevada Senate campaign. (That's above the $10,000 limit, so presumably refunds will be made.) ASAPAC also maintains a list of physicians in Congress, to which the PAC gave $100,500 in 2016.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation also tagged $12,000 worth of post-election donations as "debt retirement;" all of them went to Republican winners of their races. The firearms industry trade association made $328,000 in contributions to members of Congress as of Oct. 19, 94 percent of whom were Republicans. The group spends more of its political money on lobbying, at almost $2.5 million in 2016 to date, down from more than $3.5 million spent last year. Unsurprisingly, the NSSF focuses on gun rights and firearms manufacturing issues in Washington and enlisted eight lobbyists for its efforts this year, including former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas).
National Shooting Sports Foundation Debt Retirement Donations*
*FEC data through Nov. 28
We also looked at the top PACs that gave to candidates this cycle as of Oct 19. No. 1 on the list, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, donated $22,500 to six candidates on Nov. 28. They included Duckworth; Crist; , who is in a runoff election on Saturday; Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.); Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.); and the leadership PAC of Steve Stivers (R-Ohio.) The runners-up, the National Association of Realtors and AT&T focused their post-Nov. 8 donations on Louisiana, where the Senate runoff election takes place Saturday. NAR gave $5,000 each to Kennedy and Mike Johnson, another Republican who lost in the primary, while the number three AT&T played it safe by giving $5,000 to both candidates in the runoff, Republican John Kennedy and Democrat Foster Campbell. The Beer Wholesalers also gave to Kennedy.
"You will probably find that donations after Election Day aren't partisan," Holman said. "Really the emphasis is winners versus losers, or businesses or individuals that may have pending matters before the government."
Of course, some of the debt-ridden candidates are also in hock to themselves. For instance, Rep.-elect Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), a former ambassador to the Vatican, gave more than $4.1 million to his campaign, $450,000 of which came through loans. Those kinds of liabilities need not linger: Candidates can forgive personal loans that they have made to their campaigns, blurring the boundaries between gift and debt. But some need, or prefer, to be repaid.
Something to keep in mind: There is potential for inaccuracies in our numbers, as we included all donations from candidate committee reports listed on Nov. 9 and after. OpenSecrets Blog spoke with two donors, a leadership PAC and an individual, that said they contributed earlier in the cycle, although FEC records showed them giving well after the election.
For instance, Don Bacon's post-general report shows Rep. Mike Conaway's leadership PAC donated $1,000 on Nov. 21. But the committee's treasurer, Bill Bain, said CONA PAC's check to Bacon's committee was actually written on Aug. 17, more than three months earlier. And Nina Ahmad, deputy mayor for public engagement of Philadelphia, said she wrote her $2,700 check to Democrat Dwight Evans on Nov. 2, although the campaign listed it as arriving Nov. 17.
Senior researcher Doug Weber contributed to this report.