May 31 — Support for Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson has reached nearly 10 percent in some national polls, meaning he could be a factor in a fall general election campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
But Johnson's campaign faces major funding challenges, with less than $15,000 in cash on hand, according to its latest disclosure report filed last month with the Federal Election Commission.
In addition, Johnson still owes more than $1.5 million from the 2012 presidential campaign, including more than $330,000 that the Federal Election Commission says he owes to the U.S. Treasury because his campaign broke rules regarding raising and spending federal matching funds.
Johnson's campaign is working to overcome these hurdles and has started raising money for the 2016 race by organizing a joint fundraising committee with the Libertarian Party. The committee says it can collect as much as $80,000 per contributor—far more than the $2,700 per-election limit on individual contributions to a candidate.
In addition, the Johnson campaign is permitted to apply again for federal matching campaign funds this year, according to an attorney for the campaign, Christina Sirois of DB Capitol Strategies. The current FEC rules do not prohibit a candidate subject to a repayment order from a previous election from applying for federal matching funds in a new election cycle.
Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico, was nominated for president by the Libertarian Party convention in Orlando, Fla., on May 28. Another former Republican governor, William Weld of Massachusetts, was chosen as Johnson's vice presidential running mate.
Johnson ran in 2012 but garnered only about 1 percent of the national vote. Recent national polls show he could get about 10 percent in this year's presidential contest against Trump and Clinton, the likely Republican and Democratic nominees. The major party front-runners have historically high unfavorable ratings in the polls.
The Libertarian Party is on the presidential ballot in 32 states and is working to get on the ballot in several more according to the party's website.
Johnson indicated in accepting the party's nomination again this year that a key goal is to qualify for fall presidential debates with Trump and Clinton. Debate rules set by the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates call for inviting candidates with ballot access in enough states to win an Electoral College majority and a threshold of 15 percent support in national polls. Almost all previous general election debates have included only the Democratic and Republican nominees.
In the 2012 race, Johnson's campaign collected nearly $2.8 million, including more than $550,000 in federal matching funds, according to FEC reports. But he also ended up with more than $1 million in debts to campaign vendors and others, plus the $334,441 that an FEC audit found he owes to the U.S. Treasury.
Johnson campaign attorney Dan Backer has submitted a debt settlement plan to the FEC for the 2012 campaign, which calls for much of the money owed to be forgiven by private creditors. In addition, the plan notes that Johnson is disputing all but $1,250 of the amount said to be owed to the government.
The FEC has not approved the debt settlement plan. Until such a plan is approved, the 2012 Johnson campaign committee must continue to file disclosure reports with the FEC.
Backer told Bloomberg BNA that he represents Johnson's 2012 campaign committee in its dispute with the FEC. Sirois, who represents the 2016 Johnson campaign committee also works at Backer's firm, DB Capitol Strategies, but there is a “firewall” at the firm separating work on the 2012 and 2016 campaigns, Backer said.
Backer represented the Johnson campaign during a public hearing before the FEC in November (See previous story, 11/04/15). At that time, he tried to persuade the FEC commissioners to reverse audit findings that Johnson was required to make a major repayment of federal matching funds to the U.S. Treasury.
During the hearing, Backer elicited no indication that the commissioners would change a unanimous preliminary finding that Johnson had to repay more than half the total federal funds his campaign received. The commissioners voted unanimously in April to affirm the repayment finding, but Backer filed a further appeal with the FEC late last month.
The FEC audit found that Johnson improperly used money ostensibly collected for a primary campaign to finance his general election campaign after securing the 2012 Libertarian nomination. Backer acknowledged mistakes by the campaign but said they were inadvertent.
Backer has said that the Johnson campaign ran afoul of complex FEC rules governing the matching funds program only because the campaign forgot to update a disclaimer posted on Johnson's campaign website. The incorrect disclaimer told contributors their money would be eligible for federal matching funds and would be used for both primary and general election expenses.
The FEC determined that Johnson was ineligible for public funding in the general election. The amount of the FEC repayment order related to the amount of primary matching funds received by the Johnson campaign that the FEC calculated were used for the general election in 2012.
The FEC administers the voluntary public financing program for presidential campaigns, which since the 1970s has provided taxpayer funds to candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending and follow other rules. Once used by nearly all major presidential candidates, the program has been abandoned in recent elections by major-party contenders but has continued to be used by some minor-party candidates, including Johnson and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.
Although FEC reports indicate that Johnson's 2012 campaign did not have money for a substantial repayment to the Treasury, the public financing law indicates that a candidate may be held personally responsible for any required repayment.
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