Why Clinton Stands to Lose Millions

The struggling candidate must act quickly if she wants her campaign debts repaid.

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With rounds to fight running out, the self-described Rocky Balboa of politics will soon be forced to assess the damage sustained by the most expensive primary bout in history. Sen. Hillary Clinton doled out $6.4 million of her own money to her campaign since April, her campaign told reporters this week. That brings her total cash outlay to more than $11 million since January. And she's not ruling out spending more as she plans to compete in the six remaining contests. If she plans to knock out heavyweight fundraising champ, Sen. Barack Obama, she may have no other choice.

Experts disagree on whether or not Clinton will actually stick in the fight until the Democratic National Convention in August. But the date looms large for another reason—at least, if she hopes to recoup any of the millions she has sunk into the campaign. Thanks to a little-known provision in 2002's McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, a campaign must repay the loan to a candidate before Election Day. In this case, that's the nominating convention. After the election has passed, a bankrupt campaign is limited to gathering just $250,000 from contributors, which means that modest sum is all it can give back to a candidate. In short, Clinton stands to lose $11,150,000. "If she wants to be repaid, she'd have to move on that between now and the national convention," says former Federal Election Commission chairman Michael Toner. "Otherwise, it just becomes another contribution." The campaign, meanwhile, has other debts to consider as well. According to her latest FEC filing, the Hillary Clinton for President campaign committee owes millions to vendors, including more than $4.5 million to Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, the consulting firm of her former chief strategist Mark Penn.

That adds another wrinkle to her decision to stay in the race. Time is running out to pay off friends, allies, and vendors. Plus, by all accounts, Clinton's most ardent supporters are tapped out, either unwilling or unable by law to donate any more. If she's going to continue competing, she has to ask herself how many more millions she's willing to spend in a quest many describe as increasingly quixotic. In short, how much does she care about the money? Politics guru Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia figures not much; after all, the Clintons earned $109 million since leaving the White House. "It's like Michael Bloomberg spending a billion. Would he miss it? Is she going to miss $10 million? There's only so much you can spend yourself anyway."

Still, $10 million is no small amount of coin, even for high rollers. That's led many in political circles to speculate that the money issue has Clinton carefully considering her options. Fundraising is tough; fundraising for a perceived loser is even tougher. How will the candidate pay off her debt? The best shot, paradoxically, is seeking the help of her chief rival. It's more than probable that she and Obama could work out a deal: She gets out of the race, saving him the millions he would spend in the remaining primaries, and he would help put her campaign back in the black. That could be accomplished by headlining fundraisers for her, and leaning on his donors to cut her a check. "It would be a matter of mending fences," says Scott Thomas, another former FEC chairman. "If his campaign fundraisers are able to help her retire her debt, she's in a much more comfortable position and would be far better disposed (to help him in the general election)." Adds Toner: "That's very common, particularly when you're trying to join ranks to help your defeated colleagues."

Even with Obama's help, however, it's unlikely that Clinton could recoup all or even most of her millions. "Debt fundraising is one of the hardest asks in politics," Toner says. "You've already lost. They'd rather give money to candidates still in the running." Indeed, U.S. News has learned that multimillionaire former Gov. Mitt Romney, who poured $35 million into his own campaign, isn't even attempting to fundraise to get his money back. He is simply giving it up. "Governor Romney has no plans either now or in the future to raise money so that he can retire his debt," spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said in a statement. "There may be some income gained through list rentals and equipment sales that will revert to him, but that will be a relatively small sum." Romney is instead focusing his fundraising efforts on assisting Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.