Capitol Report: Here’s what Heitkamp could do with the millions left over from her failed Senate campaign

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Money & Politics reporter

Heidi Heitkamp looks well-positioned to help her fellow Democrats or even run for office again, as the soon-to-be-former senator’s campaign has reported $6.8 million in leftover funds.

The North Dakota lawmaker’s unspent money, disclosed Thursday in a regulatory filing, isn’t a record but is on the high side for an outgoing senator. Former Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat who decided not to seek re-election in 2010, had $10 million in his campaign account as he retired from politics back then. But Heitkamp’s total is still significant.

“$6.8 million is certainly on the higher end,” said Pete Quist, research director for the National Institute on Money in Politics, a nonpartisan organization based in Helena, Mont., that tracks campaign financing.

Heitkamp attracted big donations from her fans late in her race thanks in part to her October vote against Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s controversial pick for the Supreme Court. She also drew contributions because Democratic donors across the country saw her race, which she lost to Republican Kevin Cramer, as potentially critical and close — and therefore worth a donation.

In the end, the Trump-voting state went to Cramer, who defeated Heitkamp by a 55% to 44% margin.

“So much money was flowing into North Dakota that it appears she had trouble spending all of it,” said Michael Beckel, manager of research, investigations and policy analysis at Issue One, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that aims to reduce the role of money in politics. There was a huge infusion of cash, and while campaign officials “were able to ramp up a lot of their efforts in the home stretch, clearly they did not spend all of the money they raised,” Beckel added.

Candidates may find that they don’t get a good return on their advertising investments one they spend above a certain level, and there were reports in some states of TV stations running out of ad inventory, according to Beckel.

Politicians with leftover campaign funds can refund money back to donors, as well as make contributions to political allies, including other candidates, party groups and political action committees. They also can spend the leftover money on winding down their campaign operations or donate it to charity.

It’s also possible to use leftover money on another run for office, as Bayh did when he came out of retirement for an unsuccessful 2016 Senate campaign.

Former lawmakers are barred from using their leftover campaign money for personal expenses. However, they don’t necessarily face consequences if they do cross that line. A recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found ex-lawmakers have used such money to buy football season tickets or pay family members for years, all without being formally investigated by the Federal Election Commission.

There have been efforts to bring an end to this type of leftover money. Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat, has backed a Let It Go Act. It would require office holders and candidates to disburse their campaign funds once it has been six years since they had their job or run for office.

Heitkamp’s spokeswoman did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

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