WASHINGTON • Few faced much opposition. All spent heavily on their way to re-election.
On baseball tickets and sports arena suites. On salaries for family members. On posh Maine resorts and expensive D.C. steakhouses. On big ad campaigns, and message-shapers and money-raisers who fill the ranks of the permanent Washington campaign.
St. Louis-area members of the House of Representatives collectively spent $12.7 million in the two years leading up to the Nov. 8, 2016 election despite generally weak competition, a Post-Dispatch analysis found. None of the incumbents had an opponent who came closer than 14 percentage points in the election.
Some had virtually no opposition but still conducted vigorous fundraising and spending — in part to stay in the public’s eye, in part to scare away potential opponents or help other politicians or to gear up for the next step.
“We need resources, of course, when we run these campaigns, in order to get our message out,” said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin.
Critics say the demand to raise and spend money has gotten worse since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited spending from corporations or individuals.
With the possibility of facing an endless supply of money from a hostile group, “there is more reason than ever for a war chest,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Under this system, some lawmakers go to expensive places surrounded by people with the means and motivation to write them thousand-dollar checks.
“Especially if they are not themselves affluent to begin with,” Krumholz said, “this is a step up and a job not to let go of anytime soon.”
The Post-Dispatch analysis of primary campaign accounts showed the seven members spent a lot of their money simply to raise more, with some spending roughly 30 cents on the dollar to pay professional fundraisers, travel around the country or rent space, sometimes from corporations or associations with business before Congress.
Reps. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, had modest challenges and spent the most. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, spent the least.
Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, won with almost 75 percent of the vote and still spent more than $1 million.
“You never take any opponent or any election too lightly. That’s how you lose,” said Shelley Taylor, Smith’s political director.
All of the money collected by the candidates came from private donors hoping to influence or advance the people who do the public’s business.
The Federal Elections Commission, the body that oversees campaign spending, is reluctant to second-guess how politicians spend their campaign dollars, an election lawyer said.
“Their view, boiled down, has been: Look, that’s up to you. It’s going to be disclosed, and the press is going to write about it,” said Joseph Birkenstock, former lawyer for the Democratic National Committee.
That’s where the details become relevant.
“Your donors might be reading about it and saying, ‘Look, you keep asking me for twenty bucks each pay period, and it turns out you spent $15,000 of campaign funds for you and your spouse to go skiing for a weekend. You obviously don’t need my twenty bucks’,” Birkenstock said.
According to the Post-Dispatch analysis, at least one-quarter of what the seven members spent was on advertising. But they spent in other ways, too.
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, who spent more than $1 million to get re-elected against token opposition, laid out about a third of that on consulting and fundraising, including what he called a “destination fundraiser” with two other members of Congress at the Bar Harbor Inn and Harborside Hotel, Spa and Marina in Maine in 2015 and 2016.
The hotel and spa boast “luxurious suites,” and panoramic views of Frenchman Bay, and the hotels’ websites say rooms cost between $200 and $1,200 per night.
Luetkemeyer said it’s part of his fundraising strategy. “We file all the paperwork on it,” he said.
Fundraising was the biggest expense for Wagner, who spent nearly $458,600 on raising money or holding out-of-state events. That also was one of the biggest expenses for Davis, who spent nearly $343,700 on it, according to an analysis of their FEC filings by the Post-Dispatch.
The same with Smith, who spent about $355,800 on raising money, including at restaurants in the Washington area. Bost spent about $311,000 on fundraising, while Clay spent roughly $224,000.
Davis’ travel expenses included more than $2,800 for the Inn at Spanish Bay, a resort and golf course in Pebble Beach, Calif.; $3,100 at the Chicago Ritz Carlton; and about $1,200 for travel to the Seagate Hotel, a Florida beachfront resort that offers guests complimentary transportation in Cadillac Escalades, according to its website.
“In this era of the never-ending campaigns, traveling to raise money is sometimes necessary,” Ashley Phelps, a Davis spokeswoman, said. “But if you compare all of our campaign disbursements, which are private donations, not taxpayer dollars, the largest expenditures by far are for media buys, including from many TV, radio and newspapers in the St. Louis area.”
Davis’ campaign spent more than a third of his $2.4 million on advertising and media consulting, according to the Post-Dispatch review. He won his re-election by more than 19 points.
The Federal Election Commission grants candidates fairly wide discretion on what they may count as a campaign expense, Birkenstock said, making it easy to blur the line between political activity and what he calls “lifestyle enhancements.”
“The ones that I personally find objectionable are the ski trip fundraisers where you literally go to Aspen for a weekend — you literally spend about an hour and a half, maybe, in an afternoon one of the days eating grilled chicken and shaking hands with political supporters,” he said. “But the airfare, the hotel room, the skis, the lift tickets … is a campaign expense.”
Shimkus spent $14,800 on fundraisers at the Peninsula Hotel, a five-star Chicago hotel; $14,000 at a Georgia Ritz-Carlton resort; and $5,000 at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.
“There is the expectation that when you travel for fundraisers, that you have to spend money to raise money,” Shimkus spokesman Jordan Haverly said.
Shimkus, who had ambitions to become chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee but lost out to Greg Walden of Oregon, spent about $130,000 for fundraisers at the Capitol Grille, a high-end steakhouse in Washington, D.C., where steaks go for more than $50 a plate. He also spent more than $11,000 at Fiola, a Washington restaurant with a Michelin star.
Wagner, who is contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate, also spent $8,700 there.
Haverly said that Shimkus, because he is a senior member, is expected to help more junior Republicans finance their campaigns. Shimkus gave more than $1 million from his campaign accounts, including a separate “leadership PAC,” to other Republicans. “That is just the expectation there is for a senior member,” Haverly said.
Clay, who won his primary by 36 points and his general election by 55 points, spent $4,100 at the high-end steakhouse Mastro’s, two blocks from the White House.
Shimkus — who spent $3.4 million to get re-elected, roughly a third on advertising and almost as much on fundraising — played junior varsity baseball at the West Point military academy. He likes sporting events to attract donors.
Even though he is a Cardinals fan, Shimkus spent $7,700 at the Sheffield Club overlooking Wrigley Field for a fundraiser, and an additional $200 on Cubs seats. He rented a suite for $5,500 from the Raytheon Corporation at the Verizon Center in Washington for a hockey game in May 2015 for a fundraiser, and he spent an additional $4,800 to rent space at a Washington Nationals baseball game for fundraisers last September.
Smith paid the Nationals $6,020 for space at an April, 2015 game. Luetkemeyer spent $3,400 on a Nationals baseball fundraiser in April of 2016.
The biggest recipient of Clay’s spending was his sister, Michelle Clay, whose law office received more than $160,000 from the 2016 campaign.
The congressman said she works as his community organizer and chief fundraiser. Her retainer amounts to more than 20 cents on every dollar in Clay’s $738,000 campaign.
“Every time you all write about her and the salary she gets from me, she goes and researches what other people get — so I have to raise her salary,” Clay, D-St. Louis, said, noting the Post-Dispatch’s past coverage of the subject. “So what you’re doing is having the opposite effect, OK?”
Hiring family members onto a campaign is legal as long as the family members are doing actual work, Birkenstock said.
When Luetkemeyer convened a congressional hearing earlier this year on banking regulations, he called a familiar face: R. Scott Heitkamp.
Heitkamp is the chief executive of a small Texas bank. He’s the chairman of a banking interest group that Luetkemeyer paid for fundraising space. And in November, 2015, he gave Luetkemeyer $500 for his re-election campaign.
In April 2016, Luetkemeyer’s campaign rented a suite at Nationals Park from the Independent Community Bankers of America. Heitkamp is the chairman of that national banking organization.
In March of this year, Heitkamp was one of four witnesses testifying before Luetkemeyer’s House subcommittee on financial institutions and consumer credit, which has great sway over legislation that regulates banks and financial firms. Peeling back regulations put on banks and financial institutions after the 2008 economic crisis has been a goal of recent Republican-controlled Congresses.
“I think we have rules that are supposed to help us, but they hurt us,” Heitkamp said in the hearing.
Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said that “it not unusual for people to testify who are contributors to your campaign, from the standpoint that we try to get a varied panel.” A former banker himself, Luetkemeyer has worked on financial legislation since 1999 when he was a state lawmaker.
Heitkamp said his donation to Luetkemeyer and Luetkemeyer’s rental of the bank organization’s sports suite had nothing with him being called or what he said in his testimony. He referred other questions to a spokesman at the Independent Community Bankers of America’s staff, who called it a “purely coincidental” convergence of policy, politics and pleasure.
When Congress holds a hearing on regulation, “who better to go to than the trade association that represents the community banking sector?” said Aaron Stetter, ICBA executive vice president for policy and political operations. “And who better to do that than our elected chairman that is the president and CEO of a community bank?”
Two Missouri congressional campaigns, Smith’s and Luetkemeyer’s, employed Amy Blunt, the daughter of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., for legal work. Luetkemeyer paid her $54,000 for legal work to make sure the campaign was complying with federal election law.
Smith paid Amy Blunt $1,000 for similar work.
Wagner’s campaign paid $3,075 to Linda Bond, the wife of former Missouri Republican senator and governor Kit Bond, to host a fundraiser for the congresswoman.
Clay’s congressional campaign and his leadership PAC, Just Permanent Interests, spent a combined $75,000 to pay people to go door-to-door before last year’s primary. Clay defeated a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, by 36 percentage points. She spent about $77,000 for her entire campaign.
Clay said he paid about 20 people a day going door-to-door.
“I don’t want to get too in-depth,” Clay said. “I’d give away trade secrets. But, I mean, that puts the crew out on the street.”