Many state lawmakers will find themselves in a favorable position when they start planning re-election campaigns.
Recently released campaign finance reports show that nearly half of the 148 members serving in Oklahoma’s Legislature will be entering the next election with at least $20,000 in reserves.
Some lawmakers have campaign war chests significantly larger.
Ethics Commission filings, which require lawmakers to report fundraising balances as of the start of 2021, show seven lawmakers —all Republicans in leadership positions — each have more than $100,000 in their coffers.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who is term-limited from running again after winning re-election last year, leads the lawmakers with just over $325,000 cash on hand.
Others with more than $100,000 in reserves as of Jan. 1: House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City ($283,844); House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Jon Echols ($177,183), Speaker of the House Rep. Charles McCall, R-Atoka ($129,027) House Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa ($124,335); Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada ($108,232); and House Appropriation and Budget Chairman Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston ($106,183).
Republicans, on average, hold more campaign funds than their colleagues across the aisle.
Of the 119 Republicans serving in the House or Senate, the average GOP lawmaker was holding about $37,000 as of Jan. 1. The 29 Democrats, meanwhile, had an average of $12,888 cash on hand.
One of the reasons why lawmakers, Republicans in particular, have so much left-over campaign funds is because there were so many uncontested legislative races last year, allowing many lawmakers to win re-election without needing to campaign or spend campaign cash.
An Oklahoma Watch review last year found that nearly 60% of the 126 legislative seats up for election in 2020 — a large increase compared to the last four years — had been decided before the general election due to zero Republicans or Democrats filing for many of the seats.
Republicans fielded at least one candidate in 95 of the 126 legislative races. Democrats, meanwhile, fielded at least one candidate in only 55 races.
Nearly 60% of the state legislative seats will be decided without the casting of a single vote.
The large reserves for many lawmakers illustrates the sizable advantage incumbents have when facing challengers who typically have to start raising funds just months before Election Day.
If Republicans hold on to their campaign funds for the 2022 re-election races (or 2024 races for senators who are not up in the 2022 cycle), the early fundraising advantage could help the party hold — or even expand — on what is now the largest Republican legislative supermajority in state history.
Lawmakers who chose not to seek re-election or are unable to do so because of term limits, have other options to spend the money.
This includes paying for ongoing campaign operating expenses and officeholder expenses, such as office supplies or travel reimbursements. A 2017 Oklahoma Watch investigation found officeholder spending also goes toward lavish meals and other perks that, while legal, have sparked some concerns and repayments.
Any surplus funds not used for debt or operating or officeholder expenses can also be donated to a nonprofit, returned to contributors, given to a political party committee (up to $25,000) or transferred to a campaign for a future election for a state-level office.
Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc
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