After loss to Michele Bachmann, El Tinklenberg faces decision: what to do with those leftover contributions

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.

El Tinklenberg
El Tinklenberg

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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Karl Bremer on 11/14/2008 - 08:58 am.

    Bachmann’s new $1.27 million manor on the 18th hole of Stoneridge Golf Course is in West Lakeland Township, not Woodbury, so the mailing address is actually Stillwater:

    Either way–Stillwater or Woodbury–Bachmann could still end up in McCollum’s district. Many in the 6th would like to see our district reapportioned out of existence and split up between the 4th and the 7th or 8th.

    As in 2006, Bachmann lost in her own precinct and in her hometown of Stillwater this year. But she also lost to Tinklenberg in Washington County, which she won in 2006, and Woodbury, which she more or less split with Wetterling in 2006.

    It’s not likely that Bachmann could ever win a statewide race in Minnesota. And it’s not likely she’s going to moderate her behavior in the next two years. Despite her widely publicized comments about being “extremely grateful” that Obama was elected, her less publicized comments elsewhere are more telling, when she compared the Obama administration to The Sopranos and raised the spectre of “full-bore rampant socialism” under Obama. Listen to it here:

    As for what Tinklenberg should do with his leftover money, he should pay someone to track and document Bachmann’s every move and statements over the next two years and ensure that her national profile stays high.

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 11/14/2008 - 10:09 am.

    Doug, I read this article after reading the one a week ago about how the DFL needs to rethink it’s nomination process after its defeats this year, but there were some flaws in that argument, and today’s article points up one of those. The three districts the DFL lost are conservative. I know the third is considered a toss-up, but I’m not convinced, and certainly the second and sixth are conservative. Losing campaigns are always subject to criticism, including the superior strength of intraparty rivals. However, if a candidate wins even by a whisker, they don’t get criticized because another candidate could have won by more.

    It should also be mentioned that the DFL won five out of eight seats, and that all competitive seats were Republican-held, and the question for two years hence is whether the DFL can make a more successful run at the conservative seats, not whether they can defend the other five. So ti seems they’re doing pretty well. Sometimes we forget that even strong parties run into these things called other strong parties, and we sometimes forget that almost all candidates for public office lose. I do think a change is needed, but it’s not in taking power away from the activists (we want you to do the gruntwork, and get nothing to say about the candidates … hey, where are you going?). The DFL needs to figure out how to approach the IP. Even when they’re non-entities, in a negative race they become the “none of the above” vote. Since IP candidates tend towards liberal more than conservative, and the IP was able to endorse Sarvi and Tinklenberg, maybe there’s some way to work together and stop splitting votes.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/14/2008 - 03:41 pm.

    I hope Mr. Tinklenberg will run again, if not for Congress then perhaps for governor. We could use a little “rampant socialism” around here and in Washington to correct some of the damage done by “protecting the taxpayer” and practicing the “fiscal responsibility” that have given us a national debt too high too see over.

  4. Submitted by Aubrey Immelman on 11/14/2008 - 04:35 pm.

    At the risk of sounding like one of the automobile manufacturing or credit card companies lining up for a cut of the taxpayer-funded bailout money, I’ll add my two cents’ worth to Karl Bremer’s suggestion of a worthy cause for Mr. Tinklenberg’s contribution surplus:

    On top of the $5,000 in personal funds spent in my attempt to unseat Rep. Bachmann in the Republican primary, I raised a little more than $1,000 and pumped another $2,500 of my own money into my write-in campaign against Bachmann, prompted by her “anti-American” remarks on MSNBC “Hardball.”

    Articles about my write-in campaign against Rep. Bachmann — such “Bachmann’s Call For Witch Hunt Brings Her GOP Primary Opponent Back Into The Race” (Huffington Post, Oct. 19, 2008) at — generated donations primarily to the Tinklenberg campaign, not mine, as reflected in online reader comments such as the following: “I just made a donation to the El Tinklenberg campaign:” and “DO NOT send money to Aubrey Immelman. … Send it where it will make a true difference: Democrat El Tinklenberg.”

    So, unlike the Tinklenberg campaign, which is sitting on a surplus, I’m ending the election cycle looking to raise funds to help me retire some of my campaign debt.

    Aubrey Immelman

  5. Submitted by Bob Anderson on 11/14/2008 - 07:53 pm.

    Aubrey, you claim to be a conservative,I can’t believe you are asking for money from Tinklenberg. I think you should stop spending so much on difficult ways to run. You decided to enter as a write in that requested no votes from Independents or Democrats. I already was the candidate on the ballot that was an alternate conservative. You spent 5,600.00 on Wetterlings campaign also. I spent my own money on this campaign just like I feel all candidates should, that would help put an end to the corruption and improper influence we have in politics. I say take personal responsibility for your money spent and if you are going to run again be more practical with your spending. I spent under $800.00 and received over 40,600 votes. I feel it was a tragic waste of money that was spent on this election with all the financial difficulties so many are facing. I feel it is time to change this practice. Bob Anderson

  6. Submitted by B Maginnis on 11/17/2008 - 04:34 pm.

    Buy back the rest of his first name?

    When did the press decide it made his name sound ridiculous?

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