Millions Racked Up in Campaign Debt

She's just completed a grueling political marathon, spending 17 months scouring the country for donations and votes in an epic presidential campaign. But for Hillary Clinton, now comes the really hard part: retiring a mountain of campaign debt.

Records show that Clinton's campaign owed more than $20 million as of April 30 — and that was before she spent millions of dollars more in the final month of primaries and caucuses.

Settling those debts will be "challenging," said Hassan Nemazee, one of Clinton's campaign finance chairmen. "The natural constituency to turn to pay off that debt are people who are precluded from helping you because they already have given the maximum" under the law.

For losing candidates, campaign debts can linger for years, enduring symbols of failures they would rather forget. At the same time, the unpaid bills can cause hardships for campaign workers and vendors waiting for payment. Some end up receiving just pennies on the dollar — if they can get paid at all.


Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., still owes $262,358 from her failed 2004 White House bid, while the Rev. Al Sharpton owed more than $300,000 from his 2004 presidential campaign at the time of its last financial report.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, ran for president this year even though he still owed $459,000 from his failed 2004 White House race. Now he's in the hole for another $1.1 million.

One of Hillary Clinton's one-time rivals, telegenic former New York district attorney Jeanine Pirro, might want to avoid hearing any debt cases when she puts on a judicial robe in the new CW Network series, "Judge Jeanine Pirro," which debuts this fall. Pirro owes more than $500,000 from her aborted 2006 campaign for Clinton's Senate seat, records show.

"We worked on that bill for a long time and got nowhere," said Angie McAtee, vice president of Southwest Publishing, a Kansas-based direct-mail company owed $34,099 by Pirro's campaign. "They absolutely would not talk to us."

Then there is former Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, who was shadowed for more than two decades by nearly $3 million in debts from his unsuccessful 1984 presidential bid. His creditors included banks, lawyers, a bumper-sticker maker and 161 workers owed at least one week's pay each.

"I regret that it is still there. I wish that it was not there," Glenn said in a 2002 interview. "We tried, and tried very hard, to raise money afterward. … But you just get down to where you're not getting anything for all your effort."

In 2005, Glenn finally gave up. He notified the Federal Election Commission that he could not pay the bills and was given permission in 2006 to disband his campaign committee.

The 2008 presidential race, which at one time featured nearly 20 contenders and has shattered all fundraising records, has set a new standard for campaign debts.

On the Democratic side, in addition to Clinton and Kucinich, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware owes $1.2 million, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut owes $380,000 and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has $317,000 in debts.

Republican debtors include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who owes $3.6 million. A Giuliani spokeswoman said repaying the money is "Giuliani's No. 1 priority outside of helping to elect John McCain as president."

Technically, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads all debtors with $44 million in obligations. But most of that debt represents money he loaned his own campaign with the expectation he would not get it back.

There is no mystery to why losing candidates sometimes become deadbeats: Winning candidates have power and can help donors; losers usually cannot.

"There are people who contribute to campaigns because they want to have a means of access to address various issues," said Andrew Siben, a former adviser to Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., whose unsuccessful 2000 Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton ended $3 million in the red. "If you are not an officeholder, you do not have that access."

About $11 million of the Clinton campaign's $20 million debt represents money she loaned to her campaign. The balance, about $9 million, represents money owed for goods and services, including $4.5 million to her former pollster and strategist, Mark Penn.

Clinton must act quickly to recoup her $11 million. Thanks to an obscure provision of the 2002 campaign finance law, her campaign has until the Democratic National Convention in August to repay the loan. If it misses the deadline, the campaign can give her only $250,000.

Several political fundraisers said they expect Clinton's campaign will be able to make good on its debts, at least the portion owed to campaign vendors.

Unlike many losing candidates, Clinton still has a platform of power and influence as a U.S. senator. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, remains a fundraising powerhouse. And Sen. Barack Obama's campaign is expected to help Clinton raise money now that she has endorsed Obama for the White House.

Another obscure provision of the campaign finance law could provide another financial lift. Clinton has a general-election war chest of about $20 million from supporters who had given the maximum donations to her primary campaign. With their permission, Clinton could transfer that money to her 2012 Senate campaign committee and have that committee pay her presidential campaign debts.

Still, it will not be easy.

"It's far harder to move beyond a loss, especially in a high-profile race, when you still have a debt," said Siben, the Lazio adviser. "It is a continuous reminder of the agony of defeat. It lives with you, day in and day out."