How does a senator running unopposed for re-election in a red state during a good year for Republicans manage to spend nearly $1 million?
It adds up fast.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has nothing to worry about next Tuesday. Still, his campaign logged $996,988 in spending from January 2013 through September 2014, including more than $7,000 on Christmas cards.
Sessions was ranked by National Journal in 2007 as the fifth-most conservative U.S. Senator, siding strongly with the Republican Party on political issues. He supported the major legislative efforts of the George W. Bush administration, including the 2001 and 2003 tax cut packages, the Iraq War, and a proposed national amendment to ban same-sex marriage. However, he was one of 25 senators to oppose the establishment of TARP. He has opposed the Democratic leadership since 2007 on most major legislation, including the stimulus bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act. As the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he opposed both of President Barack Obama’s nominees for the Supreme Court.
When Ronald Reagan wanted to make him a federal judge, a number of witnesses came forward to say that he had made some truly disgusting racist remarks, such as that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions had called a white civil rights lawyer a “disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases. Sessions acknowledged making many of the statements attributed to him but claimed that most of the time he had been joking, saying he was sometimes “loose with [his] tongue.”
Phyllis Spurlock, finance director of the Friends of Sessions Senate Committee, said some of the funds from Sessions’ campaign committee have gone to help the state, local and national parties, but that the Alabama Republican basically runs as if he has an opponent.
“We would always do it that way,” Spurlock said, adding, “He never takes it for granted.”
So what’s different about this campaign and his last, when he won a fourth term with 63.4 percent of the vote over Democratic candidate Vivian Figures in 2008? Sessions has a smaller campaign staff and isn’t spending this year on television ads or yard signs.
After all, those aren’t necessary: Sessions made news earlier this year when for the first time in Alabama’s history no Democrat was running for an in-cycle Senate seat. Sessions also was unopposed in the primary.
It wasn’t all for himself. This January through September, he gave roughly half of the $1.07 million he raised this cycle to other political action committees, including $500,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee working to reclaim control of the chamber.
The $483,388 Sessions spent on operating expenses — including payroll, supplies, travel and meals — are typical costs according to campaign finance experts.
Sessions paid Republican fundraiser Elizabeth Conatser $112,000 in 16 payments of $7,000 each for consulting services. (Conatser, profiled in Roll Call when she opened her own firm in 2003, has been paid by numerous other Republican candidates for consulting.)
He also spent $7,384 at Delta Printing and Sign Co. of Montgomery, Ala., for printing, postage and Christmas cards. Each year Sessions sends out roughly 11,000 cards to donors around the nation. That’s just over the $6,738 Sessions spent at Johnny’s Half Shell on Capitol Hill over the course of the year.
Sessions’ PAC is sitting on $3.02 million in cash on hand.
Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, said some of the spending “might be aimed at keeping challengers away.”
George Hawley, assistant professor in the political science department of the University of Alabama, noted that Republicans in Alabama are so predominant they can rake in cash from traditionally Democratic donors such as trial lawyers.
Another unopposed Republican in Alabama, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, spent $868,729 over the same period. The bulk of that was on operating expenses.
Aderholt gave $11,000 in contributions to other mostly local and state races, including $1,000 to his colleague on the Appropriations Committee, Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who faced and defeated a tea party primary challenger.
Joseph Birkenstock, a campaign attorney who until this year served as chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee said the spending seemed par for the course given that unopposed campaigns typically spend as if they have something to worry about.
“Even for an unopposed candidate, it would be political malpractice not to campaign at all,” Birkenstock said.
One has to wonder if all these politicians are serious about reducing the National Debt why don’t they donate all these millions in campaign funds in uncontested elections towards that end instead of buying postcards and buying negative ads for their pals.