You’ve probably already forgotten that Mike Huckabee ran for president again. But the guys his campaign owes more than $21,000 for air travel haven’t.
At the end of February — the month the candidate suspended his second failed presidential campaign — Mike Huckabee for President Inc. owed nearly $70,000 on credit cards, according to paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission. It had other outstanding debts like the air travel, too.
This is not unusual. It can take a few months after a campaign ends to get an accurate grasp of all the unpaid bills, and many campaigns keep fundraising long after political dreams are shattered. Professional panhandling is part of politics.
But what about when you have campaign debt years after you ran for office? What happens to it, and what does it say about the candidates’ credibility when they talk about debt — especially when they do it over and over? We looked into the most recent campaign finance records for all the major declared candidates in 2012 and 2016. These are the ones that have more debt than cash on hand…
This data comes from the Federal Election Commission. Until presidential campaigns formally close out the books and shut down, they’re required to file monthly or quarterly reports with the FEC.
This can take years. Obama for America is still active and in debt, for instance, and may be even after President Obama finishes his term. But the chart requires a little unpacking. Here are our big takeaways…
Candidates often fuel their own campaigns
Our chart shows Donald Trump technically has the most debt by a yuuuuuge margin — but it’s virtually all to himself. The FEC allows candidates to lend their campaign committees, which are essentially businesses, as much money as they want. (They can even charge interest “at a commercially reasonable rate”!) All the candidates in the chart above with an asterisk loaned their campaigns at least as much as they currently owe.
Of course, Trump and Chafee know they will never get that money back. FEC rules allow campaigns to repay loans of more than $250,000 from candidates only if the contributions come before the election. Chafee has already quit and has no money rolling in, while Trump as the Republican front-runner still has tons of spending to do.
Campaigns can keep fundraising after the election to retire their debt, including to the candidate — but they can only pay the candidate back up to $250,000. The rest is treated as a campaign donation from the candidate. That means Pataki and Gilmore still might legally get their money back years from now, but only if voters decide to give them a handout after their poor performances. Not likely.
When candidates are ready to give up on ever seeing their money back, they can write a letter to the FEC saying that they forgive the loan. If that’s the only debt, they can then formally terminate their campaign and stop filing regular reports announcing they owe themselves.
A larger percentage of recent Republican campaigns are deadbeats
Of the 33 campaigns we looked at, six were for Democrats, 25 for Republicans, and two were for a Libertarian. The only Democratic committee with debt to someone other than the candidate is Obama for America. That’s one in six, or 16.67 percent. Seven in 25 Republican committees have debt to someone other than the candidate, which is 28 percent. Meanwhile, Libertarian Gary Johnson’s 2012 committee is trying to get its debts forgiven. His 2016 campaign is, so far, debt-free.
Added up, Republicans owe $6.4 million more to non-candidates than the Democratic side. It fits with what we’ve seen in our state-by-state analysis of personal debt: They want balanced budgets from the government, but not in their own lives.
That’s not to say Democrats don’t rack up a lot of debt — they’ve just been fielding fewer candidates and have been more successful in paying it off. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign notoriously ended with $12 million in debt that took nearly five years to repay, including with tactics like raffles for dinner with Bill Clinton and autographed copies of his and her 2008 DNC speeches. It’ll be interesting to see whether her 2016 campaign ends in debt, and if she pays it off any quicker.
But the begging emails are pretty funny, no matter your political affiliation. Take Scott Walker, who was in the presidential race for just over two months but somehow managed to run up more than $1 million in debt. He’s been sending emails to supporters touting how thrifty he is, and begging for donations to pay down his debt. “Walker’s email says anyone who donates $45 will receive a campaign T-shirt, but size and color requests won’t be honored because of a lack of resources,” The Associated Press reported. “Walker said the shirts can be framed or used for ‘crafty things’ like a pillow or bag.”