HELENA — Campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat can be a long, stressful ordeal — but it turns out some of the perks can be pretty good, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports for Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg.
Campaign finance reports for Republican Congressman Rehberg show he has been reimbursed tens of thousands of dollars for expenses and spent lavishly on ritzy dinners.
Incumbent Sen. Tester's campaign also appears to be eating pretty high on the hog. The Democrat's report, for instance, includes a pricey stay at the Hilton in Beverly Hills, hardly a usual stop for dirt farmers from Big Sandy.
The campaign reimbursements to Rehberg, which indicate he first paid for the outing, include many "volunteer appreciation dinners" in Washington D.C. and New York City — far from the campaign's big cadre of volunteers in Montana. One such event was held at the Russia House, which aims to attract socialites with its selection of caviar and vodka.
Rehberg, who often talks about how he sleeps on his office couch in Washington as a show of frugality, was one time last year reimbursed $500 for staying at the Holiday Inn a short distance from his office.
The Tester campaign has plenty of noteworthy campaign expenditures, too, in the race to seek out big-money donors to fuel the multimillion dollar slugfest brewing between the two candidates.
The Democrat's spending includes a couple $1,000 events at a Washington D.C. steak house, $230 for a meal at a premiere steakhouse in Austin, Texas, and plenty of other big tabs.
The Tester campaign defended the expenditures as a necessary part of travelling and raising money for a large U.S. Senate campaign with many staffers. It says the dinners and hotels are connected to fundraisers. Credit card bills for the campaign last year exceeded $130,000, on top of a like amount in individual tabs.
The Tester campaign argued it is worse for Rehberg to get reimbursed directly, citing a recent report from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
"After 35 years as a politician, Congressman Dennis Rehberg has mastered the skill of using his position to serve himself," said Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy.
The Republican's campaign countered that it is more transparent for Rehberg to personally take responsibility for the expenses.
In 2011 alone, Rehberg was personally reimbursed $43,000 from his campaign and PAC accounts for meals, travel and other expenses. This comes at the same time that his congressional and campaign offices would also be paying for some travel expenses as well.
A recently released report from CREW found Rehberg ranked 10th among members of Congress, over the last two election cycles, for reimbursing himself. The group warns the practice of individual reimbursement is ripe for abuse.
"It is easy for the member to treat it like a personal credit card and charge it as a campaign expense. And who is really going to question it?" said Executive Director Melanie Sloan.
The Rehberg campaign offered as comment its familiar attack line on Tester, arguing the Democrat is different than the candidate who ran in 2006 promising to change Washington D.C. but instead has raised campaign money in familiar ways and supported the policies of his party's president.
"He's also jet-setting around in limos and private planes and staying in swanky Beverly Hills hotels," said Chris Bond, Rehberg spokesman. "Sen. Tester simply isn't who he says he is."