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Some members of Congress using donor money to repay themselves

Supreme Court ruling in 2022 removed limits on repaying old loans

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., paid himself $400,000 from donor contributions in May to reduce the outstanding balance of loans he made to win elections in 2010 and 2016.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., paid himself $400,000 from donor contributions in May to reduce the outstanding balance of loans he made to win elections in 2010 and 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Nearly $2.3 million in campaign contributions raised by 16 House and Senate members this cycle have gone to the lawmakers themselves to repay loans they made in past campaigns — two of them more than a decade ago.

Some candidates who lost are also still raising money, and repaying themselves. Republican Mehmet Oz, the television personality who lost the Pennsylvania Senate race in November, for example, paid himself $1.2 million this year, a CQ Roll Call analysis of new disclosures found.

While campaign contributions cannot legally be spent by candidates or office holders for personal expenses, that prohibition does not include loan repayments. Indeed, the Supreme Court in May 2022 struck down a $250,000 cap and time limits on repayments, agreeing with plaintiff Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that they were an unconstitutional burden on the free speech rights of wealthy candidates.

“Restricting the sources of funds that campaigns may use to repay candidate loans increases the risk that such loans will not be repaid in full, which, in turn, deters candidates from loaning money to their campaigns,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the 6-3 court. 

Advocates for tougher campaign finance laws say that post-election repayments raise corruption concerns, however, and note that three justices on the court agreed with them.  

“These wealthy candidates really are paying themselves off. They’re going out, getting gifts from donors, to put in their own pockets,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen.

Erin Chlopak, senior director for campaign finance at the Campaign Legal Center, also argued the payments raise corruption concerns. 

“Because they won, they’re in a real position to make decisions that are beneficial to the people making the contributions,” she said.

Senators exceed old limit

Republican Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have already paid themselves more than $250,000, according to reports to the Federal Election Commission covering from Nov. 9 through June 30. 

Vance, a freshman who beat Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan in November, has paid himself $480,000, or 42 cents of every dollar received, as his receipts totaled $1.1 million. Vance, who won’t be up for reelection until 2028, ended the second quarter with $409,000 in his campaign account, and $220,000 in loans remaining unpaid.

Johnson paid himself $400,000 in May even though he did not lend his campaign any money last cycle, when he won his third term by just 1 percentage point. Johnson did have unpaid personal loans totaling $8.4 million from elections he won in 2010 and 2016. His disclosures show that $210,000 of his repayments this year were for loans made in 2010. Overall, Johnson has raised $2.5 million since Nov. 9 and finished the second quarter with $549,000 on hand.

Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., made $356,000 in loan repayments this year, but not to himself directly. Rather, the money went to a Nashville bank that loaned $7.3 million to Hagerty’s campaign in 2020. Hagerty won a competitive Republican primary that year against an opponent who had loaned his campaign more than $2.2 million. Hagerty faced an easier race in the general election than analysts had expected, and ended up repaying the bank $4.3 million with donor money before 2020 ended. Hagerty also repaid $1.1 million in the 2021-22 cycle, when he took in $3.9 million from contributors.

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., a former House member who won a special election to fill the remainder of Sen. James M. Inhofe’s term, has started to pay down the $1 million he loaned his campaign. Mullin advanced from a 13-candidate special Republican primary in June 2022 and won a two-person runoff in August 2022. He repaid himself $38,000 in April, from total receipts since Election Day of $428,000. He has $962,000 in personal loans outstanding, and his campaign account had $185,000 on hand on June 30.

Santos outdone

New York GOP Rep. George Santos, whose 13-count federal indictment includes a charge that he falsified his personal wealth in disclosures filed to the House, told the FEC he lent $705,000 of that wealth to his 2022 campaign. Santos reported raising $209,000 since Nov. 9, and on May 30 repaid himself $85,000, or 41 cents from every dollar raised.

Topping that rate was Michigan GOP Rep. Lisa McClain, who has paid herself $225,000, or 64 percent of her $352,000 in total receipts since this election cycle began. McClain made nearly $1.8 million in personal loans for her first campaign to win the seat in 2020, and had $1.2 million in loans outstanding on June 30, when her cash on hand balance was $803,000.

FEC disclosures show Rep. William R. Timmons IV, R-S.C., has made the most repayments — $554,000 — of any member of Congress since the election cycle began on Nov. 9. But Simmons reported loaning his campaign $500,000 on Nov. 28 and then repaying himself $525,000 on Nov. 29, followed by an additional $2,000 on Dec. 27. He started the year with $12,000 in his campaign account and about $324,000 in loans outstanding from his first victory in 2018. Donors contributed $245,000 from Jan. 1 through June 30, and on April 24, he reimbursed himself an additional $27,000.

Similarly, Rep. Kevin Mullin, D-Calif., loaned his campaign $50,000 on March 27 but repaid $25,000 of it on April 7. His receipts for the cycle so far are $274,000, and he had $64,000 in cash on hand on June 30. 

Like Johnson, the Wisconsin senator, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of California is repaying loans from over a decade ago. He made a $25,000 payment in June from receipts totaling $328,000 for the cycle. 

Other House Republicans reporting loan repayments this cycle and their total receipts were: Blake D. Moore of Utah, $607,000 in receipts, $105,000 in repayments; Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, $514,000 in receipts, $75,000 in repayments; Jack Bergman of Michigan, $512,000 in receipts, $50,000 in repayments; Neal Dunn of Florida, $335,000 in receipts, $20,000 in repayments; Laurel Lee of Florida, $309,000 in receipts, $50,000 in repayments; and Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon, $1.4 million in receipts, $10,000 in repayments.

One other House Democrat making repayments was Jared Moskowitz of Florida, who had $319,000 in receipts and repaid himself $24,000.

Oz still fundraising

The loser in Pennsylvania’s race to Democratic Sen. John Fetterman, Oz has repaid himself more than $1.2 million of the $26.8 million he lent his campaign, including $4 million in the final days of the race.

It’s not clear exactly how much of that was unspent on Election Day, but Oz’s campaign reported $1.8 million on hand on Nov. 28, along with some unpaid bills as well. 

Before the Supreme Court ruled last year, Oz would have had 20 days to repay himself from leftover funds, or any amount over $250,000 after that deadline would have been deemed a contribution under FEC rules, according to Holman, the Public Citizen lobbyist. 

Because of the court’s ruling, however, Oz was able to repay himself $983,000 on Jan. 3 and an additional $250,000 on April 12. And while he does not appear to be running for anything, Oz continues to raise money.

Much of it comes in through the payment platform WinRed, where Oz’s 2022 fundraising page is still active, and includes an option to make recurring monthly payments. Oz reported making at least 450 refunds since Nov. 29, but his most recent report listed $94,000 in net contributions from individuals since Election Day. Oz also collected $282,000 from Tag LLC, an Alexandria, Va., company that is renting his campaign email list. Separately, Oz reported paying the same firm nearly $21,000 this year for “digital fundraising.” 

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