Klobuchar makes the September debate, what we know about that September debate, the wave of Republican retirements in the House, the ratings are in for the CNN debates, Gravel’s campaign is winding down, and what happens when a candidate drops out but has money left over?

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Show Transcript

Note: This is the speaking script for the show, so the audio as delivered will differ very slightly from the below. This script also does not include audio clips from third-party sources, or advertisements, which may appear at various points in the show.

Klobuchar makes the September debate

First up today, as predicted, Senator Amy Klobuchar has become the next candidate to qualify for the September and October DNC debates. She announced the news this morning in a tweet, writing:

“We did it! We made the fall debates! My approach on the stage was to take it to Donald Trump and not each other. The result? Small donations poured in [and] now more than 130,000 people have contributed to our grassroots campaign. Thanks [and] let’s keep it going.”

This makes her the eighth qualified candidate, along with:

Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, O’Rourke, Sanders, and Warren.

As we’ve discussed, Castro and Yang are right on the bubble, and I expect them to make it to those debates—which would mean we would then be at 10. There are several other campaigns that could TOTALLY make it, so the September debates may indeed be split into two nights again. Speaking of that…

What we know already about that September debate

Let’s talk about what we know about that September debate. I know you’re sick of hearing about debates, and so am I, so, good for all of us that this won’t be a long analysis.

Okay, the debate will be hosted by ABC News and Univision, and will be held in Houston, Texas at Texas Southern University, which is a historically black university. It will be televised and streamed, though I don’t have any details on what that streaming part will include.

It’s scheduled for both September 12th and 13th, which are a Thursday and Friday. Note that if not enough candidates qualify, they may cut the 13th and just do a one-night debate. It’s unclear to me what the threshold for cutting a night would be, though personally, I would be real interested to see two nights with, say, six people on the stage.

In order to qualify, candidates must meet two dramatically higher bars than the previous debates. They need 130,000 unique donors, including 400 donors in each of 20 states. And they also need to hit 2 percent in each of four qualifying polls. By the way, the DNC is rounding percentage points in those polls, so technically a candidate only needs 1.5 percent to round up to 2. Anyway, all of this needs to happen by August 28th. As I just mentioned, rather than 20 candidates earlier this week, only eight currently qualify, though we’ve still got the remainder of August to go.

And that’s pretty much all we know right now about September. The October debate will have the same qualification thresholds, so in theory a candidate could fail to reach the September debate stage, but remain in the race and then show up in October. Stranger things have happened.

The wave of Republican retirements

Meanwhile, in the land of Congress, summer break has begun for both chambers. They’ll return on September 9th, but for now our representatives are back in their districts. For many, this is a moment to reflect on what’s next for their legislative agendas. For others, it’s time to call it quits.

Yesterday evening, Texas Representative Will Hurd announced on Twitter that he would retire from Congress after his complete his term, and would not seek re-election. He wrote two tweets on the matter, and I will read them here:

“I have made the decision to not seek reelection for the 23rd Congressional District of Texas in order to pursue opportunities outside the halls of Congress to solve problems at the nexus between technology and national security.
I left a job I loved as an undercover officer in the CIA to meet what I believed to be a need for new leadership in Congress on intelligence and national security matters. I wanted to help the Intelligence Community in a different way.”

He also wrote a longer article on why he’s leaving, which is posted on his House site and linked in the show notes.

Okay, let me read here from a New York Magazine article by Matt Stieb on why this is such a big deal:

“The only black Republican currently in Congress, Hurd faced his most difficult reelection in the 2018 midterms, winning over Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones by less than 1,000 votes in one of the most expensive House races in state history. As the third Texas Republican to announce his retirement this week — Hurd is joined by Pete Olsen of the competitive Houston suburb of Sugar Land and Mike Conaway of Midland — his decision not to seek reelection has stoked Democratic hopes and Republican fears that a retirement wave in 2020 will gut the party’s chances to take back the House. That Hurd is resigning from his seat in one of the few real swing districts in future-purple Texas further cements those thoughts, as incumbents are far more likely to hang onto a seat than a challenger is to take it from them. And as a swing-seat Republican of color who stood up to the president more frequently than the average rank-and-file representative, the GOP might not find a candidate as strong as Hurd to hang onto the 23rd [district], which is over 70 percent Latino.
To take back the House, Republicans will need to flip 19 seats under Democratic control; already, there have been eight resignations. …”

Eight Republican resignations in the House. Expect more after House members return to their districts, spend a summer month with their families, and consider what this upcoming election cycle is really gonna look like.

The ratings are in for the CNN debates

Okay, let’s talk debate ratings. Way back in June, you may recall that NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo managed to pull in 15 million viewers on the first night, and 18 million on the second. That second night was the most-watched Democratic primary debate in history, though there are still Republican primary debates that beat it by a mile.

Okay, so what happened earlier this week? Did we smash the record again? No, not by a long shot. The CNN debates drew about 8.7 million viewers on the first night on TV, plus 2.8 million streaming viewers. That’s down a good bit from June.

Then on the SECOND night this week, CNN drew 10.7 million viewers on TV, plus 3.1 million streaming viewers. Both of those numbers are up, and perhaps that’s due to the Biden/Harris Effect. We saw a similar effect in the June debates, where the second night had Biden and drew bigger numbers.

Still, all of these numbers are lower than June. While I’m no expert in TV ratings, I have read a few articles on this—links in the show notes—and it appears that an obvious explanation is part of it. In June, the debates were on broadcast TV, plus cable TV on MSNBC, plus the Spanish-language channel Telemundo, plus YouTube, plus Facebook, plus Twitter. So basically, if you had a box that could get internet or TV or whatever, you could watch that thing. But in July the debates were on CNN on cable, CNN dot com, and the CNNgo app…which didn’t necessarily for everybody, though I didn’t personally have any problems. In other words, the ability to actually access the July debates was dramatically limited, and I would expect that a cable-only event would fewer viewers.

But that doesn’t account for all of it. Although this is speculation, it seems likely that, having seen the first debate, some voters were not excited by the idea of five hours of a repeat, with literally 95% of the debate participants being the same people. I’m curious how the ABC debates in Texas will do, as they will presumably have a smaller field, AND will be on a broadcast network.

Gravel’s campaign is winding down

Well, it’s finally happening. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel is winding down his campaign, though, as I record this, his website is still accepting donations and I don’t know for sure whether he has filed any paperwork to officially drop out. I asked for comment this morning, but didn’t hear back by deadline on what the actual drop-out date might be.

In any case, on Twitter, the campaign wrote this on Wednesday night:

“The DNC kept us off the stage tonight even though we qualified, but the #Gravelanche is not over. We're gonna keep going.
As the campaign ends, we're going to help build institutions on the left which can grow power, shape policy, and create strong activists for the long haul.
To do this, we are donating our funds to charity and forming the Gravel Institute, a leftist think tank.
The Gravel Institute will write leftist policy papers, with a particular focus on:
- ending the American empire
- reforming our Democracy [and]
- direct action by elected officials to end injustice and suffering.”

So if we count August 31st as the end date, that means Gravel spent 116 days in the race, compared to Swalwell’s 91 days. He is now the third Democratic candidate to drop out, though Richard Ojeda of West Virginia did so before this show even began.

This still leaves us with twenty-four major candidates by my count, though I do think we are entering a period of drop-outs, as candidates grapple with the impending debates, the reality of fundraising, and, quite frankly, the availability of interesting House and Senate races that they could probably win.

What happens when a candidate drops out but has money left over?

Okay, so, listener question time that is very pertinent to that last story about Gravel. This next question came from Andrew Myers on Twitter:

“I have a question about candidate donations. Once a candidate’s campaign is finished, what happens to the remaining funds? I [heard] you [say] some candidates transfer funds from previous campaigns but is [that] a requirement? What if a candidate doesn't run for office again? For instance, if Biden does not get the nod, he will presumably not run for another office. What happens to the rest [of] his donations?”

Excellent question, yet again. Okay, so this is another Federal Election Commission thing, and we’re gonna go back in time just a bit to explain how we got to the current system. I ran across an article by my former colleague at Mental Floss Magazine, Ethan Trex—hello, Ethan!—that deals with this topic. Reading from his article:

“…Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8[th], 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.”

Right. So, there’s a link to a New York Times story in the show notes that goes into a bit more detail there. But basically, as we just heard, the rules used to be a lot looser than they are now. For most of American political history, the distinction between a campaign and a candidate’s piggy-bank was not exactly ironclad. These days, there is NO PERSONAL USE ALLOWED for campaign funds after the campaign. Period. Okay, so again, let’s just go ahead and answer the actual question about what candidates CAN do, if they DO NOT RUN AGAIN. Reading here from an excellent article in Ballotpedia by David Borman:

“With leftover funds, former politicians can legally only use the money from campaign committees toward political or charitable purposes. They can:
- Pay for winding-down costs
- Donate the funds to a recognized charity
- Donate to other politicians' campaign committees
- Donate to party activity at the federal, state, or local level [or]
- Do nothing”

So let’s walk through those real quick. Winding-down costs are, you know, like closing down the office and paying for movers to get the stuff out of there, paying to do something with the leftover merchandise, and all that stuff. It can also involve some payments to staffers, but it has to be done within 6 months. The FEC has a full definition of this, but the point is, a campaign is a lot like a business, and winding it down involves a lot of work and some actual costs. Oh, and candidates CAN return donations, and that does sometimes happen. But that comes with its own costs, like accounting and stuff.

Okay, so the next thing a campaign can do is give the money to charity. That’s what Gravel is doing, by first establishing a charity, then donating his remaining money to it. I should point out, that’s not what Gravel said he would do when that campaign started, or even a few weeks ago, but, you know, take it up with the campaign, I guess.

Reading again from Ballotpedia here on some historical examples:

“After his retirement in 2013, former U.S. Sen[ator] Joe Lieberman ... used the remaining funds from his campaign account for charitable purposes, starting the Joe Lieberman Connecticut Scholarship Fund. He also spent some of the money organizing his personal and professional papers for donation to the Library of Congress.
This option also includes creating a nonprofit organization with the leftover campaign funds. In 2008, former Rep[representative] Ron Paul ... used the remaining money from his presidential campaign to form the Campaign for Liberty, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit.”

Okay, next option is donating to other politicians. This might seem straightforward, but, because of contribution limits, it’s actually extremely restrictive. At the federal level, campaigns are limited to giving $2,000 dollars to each candidate’s campaigns each year. There are also state limits which vary. So…if you take this route, you could sort of imagine a candidate throwing a few bucks to, like, everybody? I mean, it’s possible. You could also imagine, if you had a lot of money, continuing to donate that money slowly over time, but that does require that the candidate, or some staffer, sticks around and actually makes the donations and fills out the forms and all that stuff.

And then we get to the big option which is donating to the party itself. This can be at any level—if you want to give to your state party organization, or the national committee, or your local party group, those transfers are actually NOT CAPPED. So this is super easy to do, assuming you have some love for the party.

And the last option, perhaps the most fascinating, is that you can simply do NOTHING. That money can sit in an account and accrue interest, and you just wait it out. Reading again from Ballotpedia:

“A former legislator does not have to do anything with remaining money in his or her campaign account. This was the case with [Evan] Bayh until 2016, as he rarely donated any money to candidates or party activities. In 2015, The Atlantic reported that Bayh "donated to a handful of past Senate and House campaigns" but that these donations were largely offset because "interest keeps replenishing Bayh's account as he spends and donates from it." The article also reported other former lawmakers who had campaign funds and had chosen to do nothing with them at the time. These lawmakers included former U.S. Rep[resentatives] Joe Kennedy [the second] [...], Michele Bachmann [...], and Mark Foley [...].”

So this option exists because, you know, the government can’t really compel action, and it’s an interesting and sort of weird situation, but, you know, that’s how it works.

Now, this does raise one final question, which is, okay, so let’s say you quit politics right now, but you still have money in some campaign account somewhere. One day you will die. And what exactly happens then? One last time, reading from Ballotpedia:

“In the event that campaign funds are still available for a lawmaker or former lawmaker who passes away, those funds remain bound by the provisions outlined above. The person responsible for distributing those funds is the official treasurer of the campaign.”

So. You can begin to imagine some real weirdness going on, where you could have these legacy campaign funds passing down eternally through different treasurers. But I think it’s probably more expedient just to make yourself a charitable foundation, give the money to that, and let that foundation do its work. That’s WAY more practical because these charities are NOT bound by the same restrictions we just talked about.

So, thank you for the question, Andrew, and I still have some others remaining on the to-do list—please keep sending them in and I will endeavor to answer them.