Gideon’s conundrum: What to do with all that extra money

Maine Democrat had $14.8 million left after losing to Sen. Susan Collins

A new disclosure report shows that Democratic Senate candidate Sara Gideon had nearly $15 million unspent after her unsuccessful effort to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins. (Sarah Rice/Getty Images)
A new disclosure report shows that Democratic Senate candidate Sara Gideon had nearly $15 million unspent after her unsuccessful effort to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins. (Sarah Rice/Getty Images)
Posted December 4, 2020 at 2:29pm

The failed Senate bid of Sara Gideon, the Maine Democrat who challenged Sen. Susan Collins, hauled in nearly $75 million and, after the election, still held an embarrassment of riches to rival even the biggest pile of Thanksgiving leftovers: $14.8 million. 

The Gideon campaign did not respond to requests for comment about what the candidate might plan to do with all that cash. The campaign did say in a news release the state house speaker planned to donate a about $350,000 to two charities, Full Plates, Full Potential and Keep ME Warm. 

“Full Plates, Full Potential and Keep ME Warm work every day to help Maine families through this difficult time, and I’m proud to support them,” Gideon said in the news release. “I’ve always believed that public service is about making a difference and improving the lives of people in your community. Helping Maine people is what inspired me to run for office and it’s what continues to guide me today.”

Gideon's left over cash was disclosed in a nearly 26,000-page report, covering the period from Oct. 15 through Nov. 23, filed shortly after 1 a.m. Friday with the Federal Election Commission. The report shows that from Oct. 15 through Election Day, Gideon collected more than $6 million, including $2.5 million in "unitemized" contributions, or small donations of less than $200.

Though numerous polls showed Gideon leading going into the election, Collins won comfortably, with 51 percent to Gideon's 42 percent.

It is unusual for a losing candidate to have nearly $15 million left after the election, according to campaign finance experts. Gideon has several options for how to use the money.

“That is any extremely large amount of money to have left over after a campaign, but there is only so much money you can spend in a state like Maine given the number and size of its media markets,” said Democratic campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel. 

For comparison, the campaign of Democrat Jaime Harrison, who lost his race against South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, reported hauling in more than $130 million during his record-breaking cycle. But his cash on hand total as of Nov. 23 was about $840,000.  

Former GOP Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona reported having nearly $6.8 million left unspent, and failed Michigan Senate candidate John James, a Republican, had $2.5 million remaining in the bank. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who lost to Democrat John Hickenlooper, and Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who lost to GOP Sen. Steve Daines, both reported holding on to about $1.2 million.

Liberal donors fueled Gideon’s campaign coffers in part because of opposition to Collins’ support for high-profile and controversial Trump nominees, including the president’s pick in 2018 for the Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Activists even raised about $4 million, which ultimately went to Gideon’s campaign, because of Collins’ vote to confirm Kavanaugh.  

Kappel and other political money experts said Gideon has options for her extra cash, including transferring an unlimited amount to Democratic Party committees. She can also make contributions to federal and state candidates, within the legal limits. She has already sent money to the two Georgia Democrats running for Senate, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who are taking on incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in a pair of Jan. 5 runoffs. 

And she may continue to donate to charities, if she wishes. 

“This is a significant warchest that could be put to use for a future campaign or doled out to help other Democrats,” said Michael Beckel, research director of Issue One, a campaign finance overhaul group. 

One thing she can’t do, Beckel noted, is use her leftover campaign cash for personal use. “Beyond that, there are few rules,” he added. Former candidates may “dole out portions of their leftover campaign cash to political allies and like-minded candidates.”

They can also refund donations back to their contributors, he noted. “Or they could do nothing at all, and just keep the money in the bank for a future political campaign.”

Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.