The Federal Election Commission says Joe Sestak has passed the threshold of exploring a run for Senate in 2016 and must declare himself a candidate – or disavow his bid.
In a letter to Sestak’s campaign committee, the FEC notes that his fundraising and spending activity exceeded $5,000 and thus he meets the criteria of an active candidate.
“You have thirty-five (35) days from receipt of this notification to disavow these activities,” the letter states, or “you should file a Statement of Candidacy.”
The deadline for Sestak’s response is August 30.
Sestak, a former Admiral and former Congressman, ran for Senate in 2010 and lost to Pat Toomey. In May, he announced that he was exploring a U.S. Senate rematch with Toomey in 2016.
The letter is a pro forma notice by the FEC and does not constitute a censure. Most commonly such letters are sent to incumbent members of Congress who begin re-election fundraising without filing an official declaration of candidacy, several campaign finance professionals told PoliticsPA.
A Sestak spokesman said his campaign has been in regular contact with the FEC since the beginning of the year as an effort to stay on the appropriate side of its often murky rules.
The spokesman said the FEC told Sestak’s campaign they would receive the letter as a matter of course and that the campaign already has instructions from the FEC on how to resolve the issue.
The FEC does not comment on specific notices.
The key question could be whether or not Sestak actually created a new exploratory committee distinct from his 2010 Senate campaign committee.
Sestak’s spokesman said he did, around the beginning of the year. Previous years’ filings were submitted by ‘Sestak for Senate,’ while 2013 filings were submitted by ‘Friends of Joe Sestak.’
Sestak raised more than $670,000 in the first half of 2013; all of it went to ‘Friends of Joe Sestak’.
But Sestak’s campaign use identical FEC ID numbers when it filed paperwork for the two committees (C00465492). Most of Sestak’s pre-2013 campaign resources – his cash on-hand, staff, his PO Box, etc. – remained the same. The FEC categorizes ‘Friends of Joe Sestak,’ the new committee name, as the principal campaign committee of a Senate candidate.
That distinction could be what triggered the letter.
Much of Sestak’s fundraising haul came from checks written out for $5,200, the amount that the law permits individuals to contribute to a federal candidate each year.
“How can someone be exploring a run if they’re raising for a general election?” said a Democrat who’s an expert on campaign finance rules. “Accepting double-max checks includes the assumption that a candidate is getting through the primary.”
$5,200 is called a “double-max” by fundraisers because it includes the maximum donation allowed for a primary ($2,600) plus a general ($2,600). Those amounts must be bookmarked and can only be spent in the respective primary or general election.
The FEC’ rules on the matter are notoriously vague. It has established no numerical limit to what constitutes ‘exploratory’ activity. The cutoff could be as high as $10 million in Pa.
The Pa. Republican Party filed a complaint with the FEC in May, saying his large fundraising numbers demonstrated more than just a prospective interest in running. The party also noted, as the FEC’s letter did, that Sestak had crossed the $5,000 threshold.
However, the campaign finance expert said it’s unlikely the FEC’s letter is a response to the PAGOP complaint, based on the fact that FEC complains typically take years to resolve and tend to be resolved only after a relevant election cycle (in this case 2016).
Sestak has navigated the ‘exploratory’ line before. He campaigned around Pa. for months in 2009, before officially declaring his primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter.
What would a declaration mean for Sestak on the campaign trail? Practically speaking, not much.
Normally an advantage to having an exploratory committee is that a prospective candidate need not disclose campaign finance information. But Sestak is already following all the rules for campaign finance reporting.
He would, however, need to file a personal financial disclosure form on an annual basis.
Sestak does not appear poised to declare his candidacy. This fall, he will begin his tenure as the General Omar N. Bradley Chair in Strategic Leadership at Dickinson College and the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle. The position is non-partisan.