WASHINGTON — Now that Sen. Ben Nelson has taken a pass on a re-election bid, he has to decide what to do with the millions of dollars remaining in his campaign coffers.
The Nebraska Democrat's campaign had more than $3 million at the end of September, the most recent campaign finance report available.
There are separate limits on how much federal candidates can accept for the primary and the general election. Nelson will first have to refund general election contributions.
It's unclear how much money that will be, but a substantial amount will probably remain.
Nelson is not allowed to pocket the remaining funds for his personal use, but beyond that he has plenty of options.
Nelson can use the money for costs associated with winding down his campaign committee, donate it to charity or voluntarily refund some or all of it to donors.
If Nelson uses the money to contribute to other candidates, he must abide by existing donation limits of a few thousand dollars per candidate.
He can also transfer leftover funds to the national or state party committees, and he might face pressure to do just that.
After all, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee just coughed up hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for television ads featuring Nelson. Those spots sparked a debate over whether the committee was subverting campaign finance rules.
Nelson can always simply hang on to any leftover campaign cash for a future run for office, as long as he continues filing reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey faced a similar situation in 2000, when he opted not to run for re-election.
Kerrey had a little more than $3 million in the bank at that time, as well. He refunded more than $1 million of it in 2000.
Most of those refunds were general election donations that had to be returned under the law. But Kerrey also gave donors the option of requesting refunds of contributions for the primary election.
"It was not my money," Kerrey told The World-Herald. "People gave it to me with the idea that I was going to run for re-election. If they wanted their money back, I felt duty-bound to give it back to them."
At the time, Kerrey urged those getting refunds from him to send the money to Nelson, who went on to win a tight race for the U.S. Senate seat.
Now Kerrey is mulling a bid to succeed Nelson.
If Kerrey were to run, Nelson would have an opportunity to return the favor to Kerrey by sending refunds to donors and asking them to pass the money along to Kerrey.
Nelson declined an interview request, and his spokesman, Jake Thompson, said a decision about how to dispose of leftover campaign funds will be made later.
Kerrey praised Nelson's service and said his retirement is a loss for the state and the nation.
Over the past decade, Kerrey has used his leftover campaign funds to donate to various candidates, in Nebraska and elsewhere.
In fact, Kerrey officially terminated his Senate campaign committee only toward the end of 2011. Kerrey, who lost part of a leg while serving in Vietnam, said he gave the balance to the University of Nebraska Medical Center to help those who have trouble affording prosthetic limbs.
Kerrey said that if he does get into the race, there's no need for Nelson to return that favor with leftover funds.
"He can do whatever he wants, and he'll still be my friend," Kerrey said. "He'll still be very helpful."
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