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Campaign spending on child care growing steadily since FEC allowed it

Candidates say it allows more people to run for office

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., holds the baby of Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., in the House chamber before members were sworn in on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., holds the baby of Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., in the House chamber before members were sworn in on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected 5:27 p.m. | Rep. Ilhan Omar says she probably wouldn’t be in Congress if not for a change in federal rules three years ago that allowed candidates to use campaign money for child care. 

Rep. Katie Porter, a single mom, wants the Federal Election Commission ruling expanded to allow payments for elder and dependent care too.

Overall, 51 candidates, including some Republican men, have spent campaign dollars on child care since the FEC first allowed it in 2018. That’s according to a study released Tuesday by a nonprofit founded by a losing candidate who got the rule changed. 

“I don’t think I would have won this office if that support wasn’t there,” Omar, a Minnesota Democrat first elected in 2018, said off the House floor Monday. Her daughter was just over 2 years old when she launched her first campaign, and child care was just part of a crushing financial burden she took on, she said. 

“I went into so much debt running for office,” Omar said.

The small but growing number of candidates who have reported child care expenses during their campaigns represents a shift in the way candidates — especially women — with small children are treated on the trail, said Liuba Grechen Shirley, founder of the Vote Mama Foundation and a 2018 congressional candidate from New York.

Wave of women candidates

The change was fueled in part by a wave of mostly Democratic women running for office in 2018 that led to a record 102 women in the House. The GOP focused on recruiting diverse candidates the following cycle, with 31 women ultimately winning House seats in the current Congress.

Like Grechen Shirley, many of those women broke taboos that had long plagued women running for office, often putting the challenges of simultaneously managing middle-class families with demanding careers at the forefront of their campaigns and the legislation they have pursued in Congress. 

Grechen Shirley was dividing her time between campaigning and taking care of her two small children — making calls to donors while she nursed her son and her daughter covered her head in hair clips. She ran out for in-person events the minute her mother arrived to watch the kids at 3:30 p.m. 

She asked the FEC if she could use her campaign account to hire a $22-an-hour babysitter so she could meet voters in person, figuring that was a better use of the money than paying someone else to put out yard signs and knock on doors. The opinion was not widely held in the campaign world at the time, she said. 

“I was told it was political suicide, that I would be criticized for being a mom, for being a woman, for putting the request in. But I didn’t have a choice,” Grechen Shirley told CQ Roll Call. “To be able to take a year to year and a half off without a salary to work full time to run for Congress, that’s incredibly expensive, and something very few working parents, working people can do.”

She noted that, technically, candidates can draw salaries from their campaigns, but they often opt not to and are attacked when they do. 

Grechen Shirley was the first woman to petition the FEC to use campaign money for child care. The commission had granted a 1995 request, from Louisiana Republican Rep. Jim McCrery, to use campaign money to pay for babysitting when his wife joined him at campaign events. Grechen Shirley’s request gained support from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 24 members of Congress. The commission’s approval was unanimous.

Grechen Shirley lost her 2018 race to Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., in a GOP-leaning Long Island district. But enough of the candidates who have since followed her lead have won competitive races to help “normalize” such requests, paving the way for more working parents to serve in office, she said. 

23 reimbursed in 2018

A number of the candidates who have taken advantage of the rule change broke barriers when they were elected. Omar, one of 23 federal candidates to request reimbursement for child care in the 2018 campaign cycle, was one of the first Muslim women to serve in the House. 

Some of them have championed legislation aimed at providing more support for caregivers and candidates with young children. 

In 2019, for example, Porter, a California Democrat and one of the few single moms in Congress, co-sponsored a bill with Washington GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who has given birth three times while in office, that would raise to $11,000 the pretax amount that families can set aside for child and elder care. They note that the current $5,000 limit hasn’t been increased or adjusted for inflation since it was set during the Reagan administration. 

Porter also introduced legislation to codify and expand the 2018 FEC ruling to allow candidates to use campaign money for elder or dependent care, and to pay for health insurance premiums while running for office. That bill passed the Democrat-controlled House by a voice vote in 2019 but stalled in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans at the time. 

In 2020, candidates increased their child care spending by 311 percent over the 2018 cycle, the Vote Mama report notes. While the majority of that money went to support candidates who needed someone to watch their children while they were campaigning, $18,385 went to provide child care for candidates, volunteers and attendees at events.

‘Only wealthy people can serve’

Candidates who were reimbursed for child care during 2020 campaigns include Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock, whose every move was heavily scrutinized during a runoff campaign that helped flip majority control of the Senate. 

Warnock, a divorced father of two, reported $39,000 in child care expenses, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of FEC disclosures. 

“In too many instances, our system is set up in such a way that only wealthy people can serve in these offices,” Warnock said off the Senate floor Monday. “It certainly helps us to be able to have people serving in office who understand the expense, the challenges and the logistics around child care and a whole range of things that ordinary people have to do.”

MJ Hegar, a Democrat who won a competitive primary in Texas for a Senate seat the party thought it could flip, was reimbursed by her campaign for $57,000 in child care-related expenses. 

Hegar, the mother of two young children, became a standard-bearer for the issue when she successfully petitioned the FEC in 2019 to clarify its rules, allowing candidates to use campaign money to continue paying for child care they had in place before giving up jobs to campaign full time. Grechen Shirley had been working from home and sharing child care duty with her mother before she hired a babysitter to help her after she launched her campaign. 

Rather than attacking Hegar for making the request, her Republican opponent in the general election, Sen. John Cornyn, who has grown children, wrote to the commission to express his “full support.”

“Our client endorses the Commission’s previous advisory opinions permitting the use of campaign funds to defray the costs of childcare and urges the Commission to answer Ms. Hegar’s request in the same way,” his lawyers wrote. 

Hegar lost that race by almost 10 points, but the campaign was widely considered Cornyn’s toughest in his nearly two decades in office. 

Presidential candidates opted in

Other candidates who reported child care expenses included California Democrat Eric Swalwell, who drew funds during his 2020 House reelection campaign and, during 2019, from the account he created to run for president. Two other Democratic presidential candidates, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang, also billed their campaigns for child care expenses. So did candidates in some of the most competitive House and Senate races in the country, including Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado, who flipped his upstate New York district in 2018. 

While the majority of the candidates to report such expenses were Democrats, about a third were Republicans, the report found. 

Herrera Beutler, who was targeted by Democrats in 2020, reported $3,000 in child care expenses during the 2020 cycle, as did Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso reported $1,300 for babysitting services during a campaign event at a Jackson Hole resort. 

Republicans’ share of campaign-related child care expenses grew from just 10 percent in 2018 to 30 percent in 2020, the Vote Mama report found.

More than 73 percent of that money was spent by women, even though they made up just 29 percent of House candidates and 24 percent of Senate candidates in 2020. More than 45 percent of that money was spent by people of color in both 2018 and 2020. 

The FEC ruling does not apply to candidates running for state and local offices, but 11 states have enacted similar legislation and it has been introduced in 14 others. 

Grechen Shirley said the COVID-19 pandemic, with its disproportionate effect on working mothers, has provided an opportunity to promote legislation aimed at easing the child care burden and increasing the number of lawmakers who are also caregivers. 

“When I would talk about child care during my campaign, people would always say, ‘That’s a women’s issue. Stick to the bread and butter,’” she said. “Over the last year, people are starting to recognize that child care is a basic economic issue.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

This report has been corrected to reflect the number of states allowing local candidates to use contributions for child care.

This report was also revised to correct the number of women elected to the House in 2018 and Republican women elected to the House in 2020.

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