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Voters aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of inflation

Candidates say it can influence travel decisions, and 2022 costs will drive higher contribution limits in 2024

Along with food and gas and travel, costs for campaign materials like these signs from the 2021 governor's race in Virginia have been going up.
Along with food and gas and travel, costs for campaign materials like these signs from the 2021 governor's race in Virginia have been going up. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

High inflation isn’t just a political messaging point to some candidates running for office. The cost of gasoline, travel, staff pay, printed materials and food for events all affect the bottom lines of campaigns.

Some say they’re feeling the pinch of 9 percent inflation and can relate to voters for whom rising prices is a top-of-mind matter in this year’s midterm elections. 

“This is an issue that is affecting everyone and every aspect of their life. It’s affecting every aspect of the campaign and candidates’ and staffers’ personal lives,” said Republican Tyler Kistner, a Marine veteran who is running in Minnesota’s 2nd District again after losing in 2020 to Democratic Rep. Angie Craig

Kistner said that with flights and travel more expensive, that can influence campaign plans, including whether to make fundraising trips.

“So you’re doing less travel,” he said. Catering and food costs have also increased. And high gas prices sometimes factor into the campaign’s decisions about which events to attend. Still, campaign travel is up when compared with 2020, when the vast majority of candidates relied largely on Zoom events during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s a strain,” Kistner said of rising costs for campaigns. “Really the way I see it, it’s harder for everyday Americans to now run for office.” 

This period of high inflation will ripple into the next election cycle, too. 

Donation limits are already set for the 2021-2022 cycle at $2,900 per person per election, but the limits for the 2024 elections will rely on the rate of inflation this winter — meaning the individual donation limits will likely exceed $3,000 per election in the next cycle. A 2002 campaign finance overhaul, known as the McCain-Feingold law, indexed contribution limits for individual donors, but not company political action committees, to inflation. 

“The next adjustment of the contribution limits will be in the winter months of 2023, when the limits will be set for the 2024 cycle,” said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commissioner who chairs the election law and ethics practice at law firm Wiley. “And because of inflation and the way it’s running so high, we might see a jump of $200 or $300. We’re certainly going to reach at least $3,000 per election for individual donations.” 

The biggest expense for most campaigns is TV advertising time, which isn’t necessarily subject to the same economic forces as consumer goods, campaign operatives said. But the rate of inflation, the highest in four decades, comes as the price tag for campaigns was already increasing.  

“The cost of campaigning was escalating even when inflation wasn’t high,” Toner noted. 

Guy Ciarrocchi, the Republican running in Pennsylvania’s 6th District, said his most noticeable expense has been gas prices, which he said he pays out of pocket himself and does not categorize as a campaign expense. 

“I refill my tank probably three, four, five times a week, and it has significantly increased,” he said. 

At other political events, including for down-ballot candidates, Ciarrocchi said he’s noted that candidates are keeping admission prices low, including at a spaghetti dinner he attended recently where the local candidate asked for $15 a person. 

The issue of inflation comes up constantly on the campaign trail, including a stop at a diner last month where the proprietor discussed his dilemma about raising prices or cutting back on portions (he’s doing a little of both, Ciarrocchi said).

“Without a doubt, it’s the No. 1 issue,” he said. 

Amanda Gonzalez, the Democratic nominee for county clerk and recorder in Colorado’s Jefferson County, said the additional costs make for an added burden on campaigns, especially local races, which often serve as the pipeline, or farm team, for future congressional candidates. 

“We are anticipating additional costs in almost all of the aspects of what it takes to run a campaign,” Gonzalez said. “It affects every aspect of our lives, and campaigns are no different.” 

She said she’s running because she wants to protect “the right to vote,” but said she knows it’s harder for local races to attract campaign donations and voters’ attention when ordinary people’s costs are soaring. 

“I’m having to work to get this to people’s priority list,” she said earlier this year. “When your energy bill is skyrocketing, it can be a little bit difficult to think about, ‘What can I do to protect my local democracy?’”

Congressional candidates, too, said that the rise in costs that they feel on their campaigns is not as significant as what their would-be constituents are experiencing. 

Chris Dargis, the Republican running in Illinois’ 8th District, said he’s certainly taken note of gas prices and increased costs for campaign mailers. 

“Honestly, I’m not worried about the impacts on my campaign,” Dargis said. “I’m worried about the impact of the people I’m talking to, I’m worried about the impacts on senior citizens. … This is one where we definitely can bring solutions in D.C.” 

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