Days after the election, a trickle of checks still were arriving in the mail for El Tinklenberg’s lost 6th District congressional race against Rep. Michele Bachmann.
From the Oct. 17 moment when Bachmann said on national television that Barack Obama and some members of the Congress might be “anti-American,” more than $1.9 million poured into the Tinklenberg campaign from across the nation. Most of that money came in the form of credit card contributions of $20 or less, according to Anna Richey, Tinklenberg’s campaign manager.
So much money arrived so quickly that the campaign couldn’t spend it all. But until all bills are received and paid, Richey said it’s unclear how much will be left. Estimates, however, suggest a surplus of more than $250,000.
This is an unusual problem.
Rare problem for a losing candidate
Most campaigns, especially those of losing candidates, don’t end up with a surplus. Often as not, candidates have to raise money after the election to help pay off remaining campaign debt. But then, most campaigns don’t receive so much money so rapidly at the end of a campaign.
Recall that, as of Oct. 15, Tinklenberg had reported to the Federal Elections Commission fundraising totaling $1.1 million. At that time – two days before Bachmann’s “Hardball” appearance – his campaign reported having $291,227 on hand.
“We were running a good, modest campaign designed to stay within our budget,” said Richey.
Then, Bachmann’s statements opened the floodgates. Overnight, Tinklenberg’s “modest” campaign budget nearly tripled in size. More staff was hired. The office was expanded. Among other things, a buyer was quickly hired to grab as much regional television time as could be purchased. TV ads were quickly produced.
Both Richey and Tinklenberg spokesman John Wodele said that the campaign was able to get as much television ad time as it wanted. Prime-time TV slots were available in part because Republicans had pulled back on ads they had planned to run on behalf of presidential candidate John McCain.
So what happens to the surplus?
“That was money committed to the cause of Democratic Party values,” Tinklenberg said Thursday. “We want to make sure it helps forward those causes.”
Understand, the money does not belong to Tinklenberg. He can’t use the money for anything the Federal Elections Commission determines to be personal use.
What to do with the surplus?
The campaign could give back the surplus to those who contributed it, but Richey points out how extremely difficult that would be.
“How do you decide who gets a refund and how much should they receive?” she asked.
Other options provided by the FEC: The money could be turned over to a charity, or it could go to the Democratic Party at either the regional, state or national level.
“But at this time,” said Richey, “the most logical step is to keep the [Tinklenberg for Congress] committee open.”
Several choices would flow from a decision to keep the committee breathing.
First, Tinklenberg, who is 57, could decide to run again for the 6th District seat, which will exist at least though the election of 2010.
Digression time: Given current national population trends, most believe that Minnesota will lose a congressional seat after the 2010 census because of population shifts among the states. If that happens, it’s likely that the current 6th District, which touches every other congressional district in the state except the 1st, will be carved up and disappear.
This, in part, may explain why Bachmann is rumored to be considering running for a different office – either U.S. Senate in 2012 or governor in 2010. Given her Woodbury address, Bachmann could find herself running against 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum, in 2012. The demographics of that district would be dramatically different from those in the current 6th.
End digression, back to Tinklenberg’s surplus.
Is Tinklenberg considering another run in 2010?
“I don’t know,” said Tinklenberg. “We have to take a hard look at that. This is always going to be a difficult district (for a Democrat). And that first election after a new president comes in can be difficult for the party in power. At this point, we’re focusing on other ways to serve.”
If he doesn’t run for Congress again, he could roll his campaign committee into a political action committee that could distribute his campaign surplus to Democratic candidates around the country in coming years. The contributions would be limited to about $2,000 per race.
In terms of “other ways to serve,” Tinklenberg, who served as Gov. Jesse Ventura’s commissioner of transportation, makes it pretty obvious that he would be interested in working at some level in the Obama administration’s transportation department.
He has expertise. Since leaving his commissioner’s post, he has run a transportation consulting firm that worked on federal projects.
He also has connections. He’s a friend of 8th District Rep. Jim Oberstar, head of the House Transportation Committee and a person who certainly will have connections to President Barack Obama – and, for that matter, has been mentioned as a possible secretary of transportation in the new administration.
First, though, is the business of closing down the campaign office – the lease expires on Saturday – and paying off the bills.
It’s a thankless job when you lose. And in some ways, losing became even more difficult when those contributions started pouring in from across the country, raising expectations and putting the contest in the national spotlight.
“I’m doing OK,” Tinklenberg said. “Of course I’m disappointed. But if you can’t lose, you shouldn’t get into this business. I am proud of the campaign we ran. Still, there’s a sense you failed a cause that so many had taken up all over the country. To have this voice of divisiveness win leaves a feeling that I let a lot of people down.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.