Being a member of Congress has its perks.
The pay isn’t bad, there are plenty of breaks, and allowances for staff and expenses can reach as high as seven figures — not to mention the various tax benefits, pensions and health insurance.
But when it comes to winning a prestigious seat on Capitol Hill, candidates and incumbents are largely on their own. Regardless of rank, all are forced to sweat it out raising campaign funds at private meetings and public events, in order to pump cash into election efforts.
Of course, there’s no arguing the landscape for politicians and fundraising changed dramatically in 2010 with the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, which opened the door for tens of millions of dollars to be funneled to the benefit of candidates by corporations, unions and independent groups. But political hopefuls are still responsible for generating funds of their own, in an effort to align with key constituents and to show strength to potential challengers. More changes are likely coming, too, with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the overall $123,200 cap on hard money from individual donors in the 2013- 2014 federal elections.
For members representing districts in Western North Carolina, the spending game is just getting started.
Records show U.S. Reps. Patrick McHenry, Mark Meadows and Virginia Foxx spent a combined $607,000 on their campaigns during 2013. It’s a far cry from the $2.1 million spent by the trio during the entirety of the 2012 election cycle, but there’s plenty more to come.
Right now, campaign dollars are flowing to restaurants, printing and media companies, airlines and office rents.
“This time of year, there’s not too much sexy going on,” said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “Right now, it’s all about investment in the future, the next election and scaring off any potential competitors. If you can win by a larger margin this time, the less likely you are to have a strong opponent next time. Guys like these can be very calculating.”
What candidates decide to do with their money is largely up to them, as long as it meets rules laid out by the Federal Election Commission. But expenditures over $200 must be reported and published online, making it possible for citizens to see areas where representatives opt to spend, along with who they give business to.
Big-ticket purchases for 2014 are still coming. So in order to gauge areas where McHenry, Meadows and Foxx might throw their campaign cash this year, it’s worth looking at their expenditures for 2012.
Meadows, who won election to his first term as a representative for North Carolina’s 11th District nearly two years ago, spent more than $1 million in his efforts to win the seat.
Nearly a third of it went to production for television ads and media buys, with thousands more dollars being sent to Washington, D.C., political consulting firms.
For the congressman’s smaller expenditures, thousands of dollars were marked for campaign workers — a group that included Henderson County Republican state Sen. Tom Apodaca and his son.
Hundreds more went towards buying lapel stickers, mini-footballs, badges and t-shirts, presumably to boost Meadows’ name identification with voters across the district.
U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), a four-term congressman for the 10th District, spent more than $900,000 on keeping his seat in 2012. Like Meadows, McHenry threw tens of thousands at TV ads, along with thousands more spent at restaurants and gift shops. For one notable purchase, the congressman forked over $5,000 for tickets to a Washington Nationals game.
Russ Choma, a money in politics reporter at the Center for Responsive Politics, said expenses like dining out and special events — including sports games — are par for the course when it comes to fundraising.
“It’s the way many fundraisers usually work,” Choma said. “Some do Nationals games, others do concerts or fancy dinners — you’re basically having a party with a donation required to get in. It’s not terribly uncommon for campaigns to have these events to entice donors.”
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who has represented the 5th District since 2005, spent the least among WNC candidates in the most recent cycle. In 2012, Foxx reported only $195,248 in disbursements — a total already eclipsed by her spending in the current cycle.
Her numbers could stay low. Like Meadows and McHenry, Foxx serves a constituency in a district rated by The Cook Political Report as “Solid Republican.”
In the event of an easy re-election, candidates are free to keep their funds in a war chest for use in future races. They can also divvy it out to fellow lawmakers or committees who have backed them in the past.
For many lawmakers, campaign disclosures can serve as a check for donors who are interested in seeing if their contributions are being leveraged in a way that is satisfactory to their intentions.
“It shines light on what members are doing, because anyone can see what the campaign has done,” Choma said. “Even though they don’t have to check with donors, donors can look and find out what the candidate is using their money for, and see if it’s being spent in a way they would have intended for the money to be spent.”
Despite providing a general idea of where money goes, expenditure reports offer few specifics regarding the details of purchases.
In both cycles for 2012 and this year, all three members show expenditures marked as “credit card fees,” with little to no explanation of what items the purchases might have gone toward.
In order to find actual details on credit card purchases, Choma said one would have to dig up actual receipts for items, which aren’t easily available from the Federal Election Commission.
“It’s definitely one of the more opaque areas of campaign finance,” he said. “It’s an area that gets less attention. Even when you have an appropriate expense, it’s not broken down in a way you would expect it to be. It’s not necessarily nefarious, it’s just the way it is.”
Another loophole enjoyed by candidates is that campaign committees are not required to disclose any subcontractors who are hired using funds disbursed by campaigns to recipients. And because of weak enforcement by the FEC, few violations are ever penalized, no matter if they were unintentional mistakes or egregious breaches of law.
Regardless of the tangled web of details, expenditures by candidates are often the defining factor in winning or losing an election. In 2012, the candidate spending the most money in 429 House races won 95 percent of the time — a figure which doesn’t include any of the tens of millions spent by outside groups in securing their seats.