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How to Give Back $157 Million

Super-PACs have a problem once their favored presidential candidates drop out.
Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, speaks to the the media in Greenville, South Carolina, on May 9, 2015.

Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, speaks to the the media in Greenville, South Carolina, on May 9, 2015.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

All last year super-PACs had one goal: raise as much money as possible for the candidates they backed. They succeeded. In 2015 the groups, which can collect unlimited funds to support political causes, amassed about $343 million on behalf of presidential candidates—an unprecedented amount. About $157 million remained in super-PAC accounts on Dec. 31, the last time they were required to file financial statements with the Federal Election Commission (FEC); of that, more than half was held by super-PACs supporting Republicans John Kasich, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. Those groups spent heavily in New Hampshire, fueling more than $40 million in ad buys in the weeks before the state’s Feb. 9 primary, and an additional $12 million in South Carolina, where Republicans will hold their primary on Feb. 20. (Christie and Fiorina announced on Feb. 10 they were suspending their campaigns.) As other Republicans come under increasing pressure from the party to win or get out of the way, the super-PACs face a quandary: what to do if they’ve raised more money than they end up spending.

In September, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a favorite of Tea Party activists, became the first major Republican to drop out of the race. His campaign was going broke after spending lavishly on staff salaries and travel, and Walker decided to back out rather than incur additional debt. In November he sent out an e-mail soliciting donations to pay off more than $1 million in outstanding bills. “We feel personally obligated to make sure that every small business that extended us their good faith and credit is repaid,” Walker wrote.