Washington — Lawmakers who have big war chests but no strong challenger on the horizon still spend a lot of campaign cash, sometimes on things that aren’t directly campaign–related, including tickets to sporting events, catering for private parties  and bonuses for staffers.

Members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation are  no exception.

The latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show Connecticut’s lawmakers have begun preparing for their next campaigns, hiring staff and raising money. But those reports also show the state’s lawmakers are using their political cash to curry favor with constituents, host glitzy events and pay back old debts.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, is the only one with an announced challenger to date — Republican businessman Mark Greenberg. 

Esty has raised a lot of money in the first half of this year, more than $500,000, and has spent more than $200,000 traveling to fundraisers, hiring campaign staff and on other common campaign expenses – and a few uncommon ones, including  $202 for snow removal in Wolcott.

In contrast, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., serving his first term in the Senate,  doesn’t need to worry about re-election for nearly five years. Similarly, his fellow Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., isn’t up for re-election until 2016.

Murphy has paid back nearly all of the $180,000 he owed in bills from his campaign last year, when he was outmatched in fundraising by rival Linda McMahon, a Republican who sank about $50 million of her own money into the race.

That debt included  more than $75,000 in “win bonuses” Murphy  promised his campaign staffers last year.

Murphy paid dozens of staffers those bonuses at the end of June. Senior staffers received the largest bonuses, including former campaign manager Kenneth Curran who received $15,000. The most junior campaign aides received $1,000 bonuses, others received more. 

Many of Murphy’s campaign workers, including Curran and campaign spokesman Ben Marter who got a $2,000 bonus,  are now working in Murphy’s Senate  offices.

While Murphy paid down much of the debt from last year’s campaign, he still owes law firm Perkins Coie more than $26,000, his FEC records show. 

Marter declined to say why the campaign ran up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

“Campaigns hire lawyers,” he said.

Besides their personal campaign funds, most  Connecticut’s lawmakers, with the sole exception of Esty, have “leadership PACs.” These political action committees are formed so lawmakers  can contribute money to colleagues and, in doing so, increase their influence.

But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, continues to spend most of the money she collects in her “Committee for a Democratic Future” PAC  to cater private parties at her Washington townhouse. They are attended by fellow Democrats and administration officials who mingle with top writers, economists and other luminaries. DeLauro, who has spent about  $30,000 on those events this year, says these “salons” are opportunities for lawmakers to be exposed to new public policy ideas.

DeLauro also used her personal campaign fund to pay the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $225,000 in contributions and dues.

There are tough federal limits on contributions to federal candidates. But the FEC is much more lax on how those candidates can spend the money, said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.

“As a  practical matter, nearly everything is allowed,” McGehee said.  “As long as you can make some semi-rational argument it’s campaign-related , then you can get away with it.”

FEC regulations say campaigns “have wide discretion on how they can spend their funds.” Candidates can use campaign funds to pay for travel for their children and spouses, funerals for campaign workers, gifts to constituents and even country club dues if the facility hosts a fundraiser.

“It’s easier to list the things you can’t do because that list is very small,” McGehee said.

Spending money to make money

Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and DeLauro, have not had a tough race in years and aren’t likely to have one when they run for re-election next year. Nor is Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, although he continues to be wary about the possibility of a strong GOP challenger in his  swing district.

But challenger or no challenger, all Connecticut lawmakers continue to raise money and have used their  campaign cash to woo donors in creative ways. 

DeLauro spent thousands of dollars hosting fundraisers at the Kennedy Center and Mohegan Sun casino this year. She also spent hundreds of dollars on flowers and at Kron Chocolatiers for “gifts for supporters.”

Larson also hosted fundraisers at the Mohegan Sun.

Blumenthal used his “Nutmeg PAC” to spend  $2,340 at an event hosted at a Washington Capitals hockey game.

Murphy tapped his MurphPac to spend nearly $12,000 hosting a fundraiser at a Red Sox game.  

Larson preferred to raise money for his Synergy PAC  at an two-day  event in California’s Napa Valley that included a bus tour of the vineyards and a reception at the Simi Winery.

Larson also paid Nike more than $1,000 out of his Synergy PAC  for “charity event jackets.”  He also used his personal campaign fund to donate $500 to the Girl Scouts and $2,500 to the East Hartford ChildPlan, a non-profit that helps local children.

Most Connecticut lawmakers have also spent their campaign funds on donations to the campaigns of fellow Democrats.

That helps increase their popularity and clout in Congress, said Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Doyle.

Common Cause and other campaign finance reform advocates don’t feel there’s a need to rein in how federal candidates spend their political money.

“We’re more focused on what people can raise,” Doyle said. “That’s where the influence is bought.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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