Stearns, Haridopolos, LeMieux have campaign cash but no campaign

Published Aug. 24, 2012

Twelve-term U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns lost his Republican primary to a little known tea party opponent last week with as much as $2 million still sitting in his campaign account.

Now he has no campaign to spend it on.

Stearns, it turns out, is one of several high-profile Florida candidates ousted from the campaign trail with formidable war chests of leftover cash. Stearns was sitting on about $2.1 million in late July, while former U.S. Senate candidates Mike Haridopolos and George LeMieux have about $1.4 million and $1 million, respectively.

Money raised for federal campaigns cannot go to personal expenses but almost anything else is fair game.

"I'm sure congressman Stearns is getting quite a few calls from the Republican Party of Florida and other political party committees saying 'Hey, can we have some of your campaign funds?' " said Michael Toner, former Federal Election Commission chairman. "He may want to hang on to the money, but he'll certainly be under pressure to give."

Stearns did not respond to requests for an interview.

Often, candidates steer unused money to state or national political parties, donate it to charities, spend it to help elect friends or roll it over to pay for future campaigns.

Haridopolos, for example, abruptly shut down his U.S. Senate campaign in July 2011 with a stockpile of nearly $2.4 million, promising to "rededicate" himself to his role as state Senate president and not run for office for at least two years.

He returned $1 million to donors and contributed $4,000 to U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV and another $4,000 to U.S. Rep. Bill Posey.

Mack won the GOP Senate primary and is facing off in the Nov. 6 general election against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, and Posey's congressional seat may be ripe for Haridopolos if Posey retires in 2014.

Posey said this week he hasn't decided whether he'll retire and Haridopolos hasn't given him any hint that he wants his seat.

Haridopolos, who has frequently deflected questions about his leftover $1.4 million, did not return calls seeking comment.

"That's a nice amount of funds he's sitting on," Toner said. "He's got money there to use and be visible. Most common is to fly around the country and maintain your donor network and keep your visibility up."

LeMieux, who bowed out of the U.S. Senate GOP primary and endorsed rival Mack in June, returned $5,750 to his biggest donors and is hanging on to $940,134, according to FEC filings.

LeMieux said he might give some money to Republican candidates, but he wouldn't say who he's interested in supporting. Florida limits on campaign contributions would prevent LeMieux or any other candidate from repurposing federal campaign money for a state race.

When asked whether he's saving the money for a future political bid, LeMieux declined to answer.

"We'll have to see what the future holds," he said. "In Florida, everything changes over and over again. It's hard to predict."

Candidates don't always have leftover cash. In fact, often they don't.

Presidential campaigns are notorious for carrying such huge amounts of debt they often take years to repay.

And, in heated legislative races, candidates frequently use their final dollars to pay their debts and shut down their campaigns.

When Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio beat former Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, for example, they were left with $103,015 and $71,745, respectively. Crist said it took the last of his money to pay off his campaign expenses.

"We spent it on whatever bills came in," he said. "We just wanted to make sure that anybody we had any obligations to were paid in full."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached