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Where does Nolan's campaign cash go? Retiring congressman has more than $500K on hand

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan announced earlier this month that he is retiring at the end of his current term. (2014 file / News Tribune)

When Rep. Rick Nolan announced his upcoming retirement from Congress earlier this month, he ended a re-election campaign flush with cash — more than half-a-million dollars' worth.

The situation was not unusual; politicians retire midstream all the time. What Nolan does with his unspent campaign money is basically up to him — but it includes some limits, said David Schultz, a Hamline University professor of political science.

"There are some people who haven't been in Congress 15 years who still have campaign committees going," Schultz said, "and they continue to make contributions well beyond their departure."

Nolan's campaign committee, the Nolan for Congress Volunteer Committee, ended 2017 with slightly more than $554,000 in cash on hand. That number likely grew leading up to his retirement announcement, but the amount won't be known until the next quarterly campaign finance reporting period following the end of March.

One thing Nolan cannot do with his war chest is put the money to personal use — a practice barred by federal law in 1979 and further defined in 1994.

Nolan essentially becomes a fund manager. He can donate money to charities, other candidates or the party as a whole. But he won't be allowed to play king- or queen-maker by moving his entire pot to another candidate, Schultz said. As with any contributor, Nolan is limited to a $2,000 donation to any single candidate.

"What he could do is give $2,000 to lots of Democrats across the country," Schultz said.

Additionally, Nolan could start his own political action committee and make independent expenditures on behalf of other candidates, spending as much as he wants, say, on television advertising.

Nolan's campaign manager Annie Harala said on Monday that the congressman "hasn't made those decisions yet."

But Nolan's retirement announcement alluded to the fact that he's not done being influential.

"I will continue always to speak out for the common sense, progressive agenda I have spent a lifetime fighting for," Nolan said. "But I will be doing so as a private citizen, privileged and grateful to be living here in the greatest nation on earth."

Donors who ask the Nolan campaign for their money back would likely be entitled to it, Schultz said, but "chances are very few donors are going to do that."

Additionally, a spokeswoman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rachel Irwin, said Nolan would be "required to refund any general election money." But because Nolan was tied up in an endorsement race within the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party at the time of his retirement announcement, he was still months away from reaching the general election portion of the campaign.

Schultz said individual donors who insisted on receiving their money back would have a strong legal claim based on a premise called "donor intent" — a stipulation which allows a donor to give money to, say, the American Red Cross and make sure it goes to Hurricane Harvey relief instead of a general fund.

Barring massive refunds, Nolan becomes a player on the sidelines with his leftover campaign cash. What that looks like will be up to him. As Schultz suggested others have done, Nolan could sit on chunks of money and use it to help influence elections for years to come. But if he wanted to blow it all on television ads on a favored 2018 candidate through a political action committee, he could do that, too.

Eighth District DFL Chairman Justin Perpich was holding out his hand on Monday, telling the News Tribune, "From my understanding he can donate it to a party, so the DFL or DCCC. I think that would be the best route."