Sen. Patrick Leahy and his wife Marcelle at his retirement announcement
When U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) finishes his final term at the beginning of 2023, he’ll have a much smaller job ahead of him: deciding what to do with the unspent money in his campaign coffers.
Leahy’s campaign account is holding a little over $2 million, according to the Federal Election Commission, which maintains detailed reports about candidates’ donations and expenditures.
The FEC has strict rules about how candidates and campaigns can spend donations, both during campaigns and after. The money can be used for some of the costs of winding down the campaign committee, for charitable contributions, and for contributions to other federal, state, and local political candidates and committees.
Leahy’s not going to make any decisions about where the money’s going until after his term is up, his campaign manager, Carolyn Dwyer, said on Monday.
“He’s focused on his Senate responsibilities at this time,” she said. “As we reach the close of his term, he’ll turn his attention to what money remains and how to best disburse it.”
Leahy, an eight-term Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 1974, announced November 15 that he won’t seek another term. The 81-year-old is dean of the Senate and its president pro tempore, as well as chair of the chamber's Appropriations Committee. When he retires, he’ll be the third-longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
Six days after Leahy announced his decision, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said that he plans to run for Leahy's seat. That set off a wave of speculation about likely candidates for Welch's seat. Vermont Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham), and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden) have all expressed interest.
Welch, who was first elected to the House in 2006, must create a new Senate campaign account, said a spokesperson, Natalie Silver. But the rules allow him to use leftover money from his House account, which was stocked with about $2.2 million at the end of September, records show.
Leahy will have some time to make his decision about the campaign money. There's no set time limit for how long his account can stay open, according to Dwyer.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004, said he left his campaign account open for many years, taking time to donate the money to charities and candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) still has presidential campaign accounts from 2016 and 2020. At the end of 2020, Sanders transferred $2 million from his presidential campaign account to his Senate one, which held $8.7 million as of the end of this September.
Records show Dean had about $854,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2004. He'd pulled the plug on his presidential run earlier that year.
“I had that account for years,” Dean said, noting that he had to file quarterly reports to the FEC for as long as the account was open.
Dean said he donated to the Vermont Community Foundation, to St. Michael’s College, to federal political campaigns, and to the Vermont Land Trust. The records show he also refunded about $349,000 to individual donors, including about $1,600 to Hollywood actor and director Rob Reiner.
The FEC allows candidates to refund the money to donors, but few do, said Professor Bert Johnson, who teaches political science at Middlebury College. Campaigns aren't required to collect as much information about small donors as they are about large donors, so it's difficult to send many of the donations back.
"My sense of things is that the vast majority of the money is not refunded, but is devoted to other kinds of causes that are similar to what the campaign would have been," said Johnson, who published a book in 2013 about small donors called Political Giving: Making Sense of Individual Campaign Contributions.