Even without challengers, CT lawmakers spend lots of campaign cash

Washington – They may not have well-funded challengers, or any political rivals at all, but the members of  Connecticut’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives continue to raise campaign money and spend a lot of it.

A Connecticut Mirror analysis of the spending habits of the lawmakers’ campaigns last year found that they spent money on traditional campaign expenses, such as fundraising and campaign staff. But they also spent tens of thousands of dollars on flowers and gifts for constituents, restaurant meals, travel and tickets to sporting events.

Dave Levinthal of the Center for Public Integrity says the Federal Elections Commission prohibition on spending campaign cash for personal use does not mean lawmakers do not use their war chests for things that may provide personal benefit along with political gain.

“Travel, gifts to constituents, those wouldn’t be the typical campaign expenses,” Levinthal said. “But members of Congress who have sufficient funds and no challengers per se can use their money in a way that benefits them politically even if it isn’t going toward the standard election-year expenses.”

Most Connecticut House members fit into Levinthal’s definition of members of Congress who have sufficient campaign funds and poorly funded challengers.  They raised a lot of money last year, and spent some of it, although how much varied from member to member.

U.S. Rep. John Larson at a recent campaign stop with Granby's Lost Acres Volunteer Fire Dept.

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U.S. Rep. John Larson at a campaign stop with Granby’s Lost Acres Volunteer Fire Deptartment in 2014.

The campaign of Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, spent about $762,000 in 2015, ending the year with about $417,000 in cash on hand. Larson does not have a challenger.

The campaign of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, spent $467,000 and ended the year with $72,000. DeLauro does not have a challenger.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, has four Republican challengers, none of whom have yet to file any campaign finance data with the FEC. Her campaign spent about $300,000 and had $661,000 at year’s end.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is facing Republican Daria Irene Novak, who raised less than $2,500 last year. Courtney’s campaign spend $272,000 and ended the year with $837,000.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney at the U.S. Capitol

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney at the U.S. Capitol

The campaign of Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, spent $353,000 and had $1.7 million in cash on hand at the end of the year.  Republican John Shaban, who raised about $44,000 last year, is challenging Himes.

For DeLauro, Larson and Himes, the largest checks their campaigns cut went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for dues. DeLauro paid $180,000: Larson paid $155,000 and Himes $110,000. Courtney only paid the DCCC $11,000, and Esty paid $5,000.

“Elizabeth, being the most junior member and in the most competitive district, pays the least dues,” said campaign spokesman Tony Baker.

Meanwhile DeLauro campaign manager Jimmy Tickey said that, “as a member of the Democratic leadership, Rosa is proud to fulfill her obligations to support the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and candidates.” DeLauro is co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

After her DCCC dues, DeLauro’s biggest campaign expense was the $131,000 spent on payroll. She is the only member of the House delegation to hire a full-time, year-round campaign staffer to help with fundraising and political outreach.

Although she has no challenger, Tickey said, “​Rosa is looking forward to another energetic re-election campaign this year. “

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District

Food, drink and flowers

Connecticut lawmakers spent a lot of money on food and drink last year. Eateries frequented by Connecticut lawmakers ranged from Dunkin’ Donuts to some of the best restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.

Larson’s campaign, for example, spent more than $41,000 on catering and more than $43,000 on restaurant meals.

Barry Feldman, Larson campaign treasurer, said Larson invited “past and prospective campaign donors, campaign staff and volunteers, campaign consultants, colleagues, political contacts and supporters” to meals.

Larson’s campaign also spent nearly $29,000 on flowers and gifts.

Quinnipiac political science professor Scott McLean said spending on meals and gifts fosters goodwill, which is invaluable in the world of politics.

“When incumbents have no challengers and plenty of funding, one of the things they spend money on is building loyalty for the future,” McLean said.

And by building goodwill,members of Congress are warding off potential future challenges, McLean said. The ability to raise and spend money is an advantage congressional incumbents have that helps them have high re-election rates, he said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District.

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District.

Another big expense for the Larson campaign was travel. It spent more than $43,000 on travel expenses, including dozens of trips from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut and back. Usually trips back and forth to the district are paid for by a lawmaker’s office expense. Feldman said Larson shifted this expense to his campaign – which is permissible – to have more money in his office account for other things.

Since it takes money to make money, Larson spent more money than any other Connecticut House member last year on fundraising.

Himes spent the most on consultants. Himes spokesman Patrick Malone said there is a reason for that.

“Toward the beginning of last year, the campaign transitioned all fundraising to one outside consultant instead of splitting those duties between an outside consultant and a campaign-employed finance director,” he said. “This led to relatively higher consultant fees for the year.”

Like Larson, Courtney spent campaign funds on a new car last year, about $25,000.

A Courtney campaign aide said the campaign bought a grey Ford Taurus to replace a car purchased in 2006.

“The FEC ruled that if the car is used 95 percent for campaign or official usage, then the campaign should pay for it,” he said. “Joe has his own car that he uses for personal use.”

Connecticut lawmakers also used their campaign accounts to donate to other Democrats, many of whon are in competitive races. Larson led the way, with about $63,000 in donations.

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, speaking to supporters.

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, speaking to supporters.

Charities were also beneficiaries of Connecticut political money.

For instance, Larson’s campaign gave $5,000 to Connecticut Public Broadcasting and $2,500 to St. Patrick and St. Anthony Church.

Courtney gave $250 to the town of Vernon Police Dog Fund, and DeLauro gave $250 to Associated Irish Societies.

All of this spending is well within what is allowed under federal election law, although Levinthal says “there’s definitely a gray area” that allows members of Congress to make expenditures that aren’t strictly campaign-related.

“Everything is allowed as long as you don’t’ cross the very bright line that bans using campaign funds to send your kid to college or buy a house,” he said.

The Connecticut Mirror analysis also found that much of the delegation’s campaign money was spent outside of Connecticut, on fundraising in Washington, D.C., and other out-of-state vendors.

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