The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

Well Done: Christine O’Donnell’s Campaign Leaves $1 Million Unspent


Was it all a heist?

A candidate who had persistent financial problems pulls off a surprise upset in the primary, and the conservative grassroots open their wallets wide and often in order to help ensure the campaign’s competitiveness — only to see the candidate end the campaign with nearly $1 million in unspent funds.

Is this how Christine O’Donnell wanted it?

Politico reported, “O’Donnell reported having $924,800 in the bank after the election was over, according to her post-general election campaign fundraising report, filed Thursday.”

The explanation from O’Donnell spokesman Matthew Moran is that O’Donnell was advised by her attorney to reserve “several hundred thousand dollars” for after Election Day to use for legal challenges resulting from her campaign — such as a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission by the state GOP during the primary and a criminal complaint filed with the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

When was O’Donnell advised this? The state GOP complaint was filed before the primary, and the CREW complaint was filed September 20. Clearly, almost all of her donors were unaware that the candidate was going to require a cushion of “several hundred thousand dollars” for potential legal costs before their donations could be spent on actually trying to win the race.

Follow the time-line here. As late as June 30, 2010, O’Donnell’s cash-strapped campaign had less than $70,000 cash on hand. On September 14, she won the primary, and conservative grassroots contributed to her campaign on a scale rarely seen: $850,000 in the first 24 hours; by September 25, she had raised $2.5 million.

Despite this almost unprecedented influx of funds, the O’Donnell campaign aired no television ads for three weeks after the primary. During that time, the Chris Coons campaign and the DSCC each aired two ads; also, O’Donnell became a national figure — and frequent punchline — thanks to Bill Maher, Jay Leno, etc. According to the O’Donnell campaign, the slow roll-out of television ads stemmed from a desire to work with Fred Davis, creator of “Demonsheep”, the McCain ad implicitly comparing Obama to Paris Hilton, and many other memorable ads.

At the time, some of us pointed out the danger in this approach. On October 4, less than one month before Election Day, O’Donnell’s first ad debuted, with the memorable opening line, “I’m not a witch.” By October 21, she was declaring on Good Morning America that the ad had not worked or accomplished its goal, to put the witch talk behind her.

Then again, perhaps O’Donnell’s campaign spending was moot, and there was no point in spending this $924,000 or so. O’Donnell ultimately spent $6.1 million, a record for Delaware and almost twice what Coons spent, $3.2 million. During the brief general-election campaign, she never closed the margin to less than 10 points and lost, 56.6 percent to 40 percent.

Presuming that the $924,000 isn’t eaten by legal costs, what happens to the money? Well, O’Donnell can return it to donors, contribute to other candidates . . . or use it in another run for office. If O’Donnell does run for office, then on paper, O’Donnell can collect a portion of this money as a salary. Under FEC law, “House and Senate candidates are permitted, under certain conditions, to receive a salary from their campaign committee (up to either the candidate’s earnings in the previous year or the salary of the office, whichever is lower).” Of course, O’Donnell reported a 2009 income of $5,800. Then again, in 2011, the “previous year” will have been 2010, and her income in the past year may be quite different — including a book deal.

Tags: Chris Coons , Christine O'Donnell


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