MINOT, N.D. — It's been more than a year since Heidi Heitkamp lost her Senate re-election campaign to Kevin Cramer. However, according to her most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission, she still has millions of dollars in her campaign.
What's interesting is how she's been spending that money, not to mention how she could spend it.
More on the latter in a moment.
According to the year-end report, Heitkamp ended the reporting period with $4.55 million in cash on hand. There isn't a lot of money coming in these days since Heitkamp isn't a candidate anymore, but the campaign did take in over $94,000 in revenue.
Most of that was interest and dividends (millions of dollars in the bank produces a lot of interest and dividends) as well as a more than $87,000 payment from an organization called Authentic Campaigns. They're a digital communications company that has worked on the campaigns of Democrats like Kamala Harris, Jon Tester, and Adam Schiff.
Their payment to Heitkamp was described in the FEC filing as "list rental income," which is to say they paid to get access to Heitkamp's email list.
If you, like me, have been getting campaign emails from someone like North Carolina Senate candidate Cal Cunningham (an Authentic client, per their website) despite never having signed up for anything like that, you can probably thank Heidi Heitkamp.
How has Heitkamp been spending her campaign money over the last year? Booze, fine dining, and luxury travel make up a big chunk of it.
There was a $2,700 bill at the Acqua Al 2 restaurant in Washington, D.C. There were also big tabs at the London West Hollywood restaurant in Beverly Hills, the ultra-fancy Mayflower Hotel in D.C., and the Napa Valley Grille in Los Angeles. On top of that, there was more than $6,700 spent at Schneider's of Capitol Hill, a Washington D.C., liquor store.
Heitkamp also spent over $3,700 on lodging with Airbnb around Thanksgiving time as well as nearly $600 at the Salamander Spa, a luxury resort in Virginia's horse and wine country.
There was also $70,000 in payments (the last $10,000 installment made in mid-December) for "consulting" to Tessa Gould, Heitkamp's former chief-of-staff in her Senate office and campaign manager. This, despite Gould having worked at Forbes Tate Partners, a Washington D.C., lobbying firm, since March 2019.
With no actual campaign to manage, you have to wonder just what it is, exactly, Gould has been consulting.
The most significant expenditure from the campaign in the last year was $600,000 in contributions to the One Country Project. This is an initiative Heitkamp joined shortly after losing in 2018. It's stated purpose is to help Democratic candidates better understand we rubes out here in fly-over country.
Except in minimal and unique circumstances, federal candidates aren't allowed to pay themselves from their campaigns. But in this instance, Heitkamp is sending six-figure sums to a group she's also working for. Does that group also pay Heitkamp a salary? Is Heitkamp essentially paying her own salary with campaign funds?
The One Country Project is a 501(c)4 non-profit, so they don't have to disclose much of anything in terms of how they get their money and how they spend it. I reached out to the group yesterday to see what their financial relationship with Heitkamp is, but they have not responded.
That's how Heitkamp has been spending the money. Now let's talk about how she could spend it.
It is a potential game-changer for North Dakota Democrats this cycle if Heitkamp decides to play kingmaker. She could use some of those millions to promote statewide and local candidates.
For instance, there's an open race for treasurer this cycle. Democrats haven't held a statewide executive branch office in North Dakota since 2009 (or 2012 if you count former Superintendent Wayne Sanstead, who held a nonpartisan office but was endorsed by the Democrats). If Democrats support a strong candidate for that race, and Heitkamp showers a few hundred thousand dollars on that person's campaign, it could make for a big challenge for Republicans.
Heitkamp could also shower money down on the state Democratic party as part of a coordinated effort to, say, take back a bunch of legislative seats. Even a fraction of Heitkamp's lingering war chest spent this way could be hugely impactful.
Though, of course, Democrats would also have to recruit convincing and credible candidates, which they've struggled with in recent cycles.
It's something to watch this election cycle.
Here's the full 2019 year-end FEC report:
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.