Attacking the Undead: Regulators Target `Zombie’ Campaigns

  • Bachmann, Dean, Kennedy among long-ago candidates with cash
  • Some politicians control $1 million-plus in contributors’ money

Former Speaker Tom Foley has been out of office for a quarter of a century and dead for six years. Yet his campaign lives, with $36,000 squirreled away in an account intended for his re-election.

Ex-Rep. Joseph Kennedy II (D-Mass.) left Capitol Hill in 1999. His old political committee still has more than $2.5 million. Ex-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) controls a $1.7 million cache of donor cash.

Now federal regulators are cracking down on the practice of hoarding contributors’ money long after the candidates’ political careers are dead.

The Federal Election Commission this week contacted the campaign committees of 50 former House, Senate and presidential candidates, including Foley (D-Wash.), who was defeated in a 1994 re-election bid and died in 2013.

Full text of the FEC’s letter to the Foley campaign

The commission’s message: If you’re not running for office again, ditch the leftover money and close the campaign committee.

The 50 committees have been given a July 3 deadline to tell the FEC whether they intend to shut down.

“It’s an encouraging sign for the FEC as an enforcement agency,” said Brett Kappel, an election lawyer. He cautioned, however, that it will still be up to the commissioners to follow through with possible fines or other action against committees that keep going, zombie-like, even though the campaigns are long dead.

(Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Ex-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) addresses the Values Voter Summit in 2016.

Most committees have leftover campaign funds that were raised by former lawmakers who haven’t run for re-election for years, or even decades. Some still hold $1 million or more in cash, according to FEC disclosure reports.

Campaign committees of former lawmakers have been spending money on salaries for family members, travel, phone bills and membership dues, the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center told the FEC in a rulemaking petition last year.

Kill the Zombies? FEC Mulls What to Do About Undead Campaigns

The petition noted that campaign committees legally are allowed to spend money only to help a candidate to run for office. A committee whose candidate retires from politics must wind down.

(Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Geisinger Symposium)
Howard Dean

Permissible uses for leftover campaign money include giving it back to donors or contributing to a political party or charity, so long as the money doesn’t benefit the candidate. The campaign committee can be converted to a political action committee contributing to other candidates, but even after such a change, the PAC’s money can’t be used for personal expenses.

Romney, Dean Targeted

The campaign committees of several former senators and two former presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Howard Dean, also were sent letters. The Romney and Dean campaigns had less than $50,000 in cash.

Dean said that his 2004 presidential campaign committee is now being shut down. “That takes a long time because of bank bureaucracy as well as the IRS which will require taxes to be paid out of the account after the end of this year,” he said in an email.

Romney (R-Utah) used some of the money from his presidential campaign last year to help win a U.S. Senate seat from Utah but has maintained the separate presidential committee. He could transfer its remaining money to his Senate campaign account.

Also among those targeted were the campaigns of former Rep. Robin Tallon (D-S.C.) who last ran in 1992 but maintains a campaign account with nearly $1 million, former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) with more than $1 million, and former Rep. Jim Moran (R-Va.), with about $180,000.

Dormant Committees

The letters from the FEC’s Reports Analysis Division noted that existing FEC rules generally call for campaign committees to shut down within six months if a candidate doesn’t plan to run for office again. The commission previously didn’t have a system in place to require campaigns to close but now it’s part of a routine review of required reports, FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram said in an email.

Committees of former candidates who didn’t campaign or hold office during the previous two-year cycle for U.S. House candidates, or during the previous four years for U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, are subject to the new review.

The FEC voted last year to examine the use of campaign funds by dormant committees semi-annually, Ingram said. The aim is to ensure that the activity meets the regulatory standards for permissible use of campaign money.

Some of the campaign committees also are being asked about specific expenditures in order to determine whether they violated FEC rules against personal use of campaign funds, Ingram said.

Kennedy and Bachmann didn’t immediately reply to emails seeking comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; Katherine Rizzo at