Trucker Hats and Ice Cream: The Most Surprising Ways Candidates Spent Cash

How political candidates spend their cash can say a lot about them: their instincts, their attention to detail, their care with money or lack thereof.

So last week’s year-end reports with the Federal Election Commission served as a sort of M.R.I. They showed how some campaigns had thrived, while others had suffered slowing flows of donor oxygen, uncontrolled spending hemorrhages, and good old-fashioned bloat. In some cases, the filings were more like an autopsy. (Tim Scott for President spent $16.8 million on media and advertising, and he was a goner before a single vote was cast.)

Then there were the weirder items.

For example, the $655,000 spent on “gift card redemption services” by Mayor Francis X. Suarez of Miami, a reminder of an ill-fated effort to entice donors to his dubiously viable presidential campaign. Or the $218,500 paid by one of former President Donald J. Trump’s political committees to Hervé Pierre Braillard — a stylist who has worked with Melania Trump — for “strategy consulting.”

Here are more examples of surprising or strange campaign spending.

You could be forgiven for missing him, but Ryan Binkley, a Texas pastor and businessman, continues to run for the Republican presidential nomination.

And he has somehow spent $772,000 on hats.

His filing lamentably provides few details, but according to this photograph from The New Hampshire Union Leader, at least one of the hats is a trucker design emblazoned with the letters “W.T.F.” — “Way to Freedom.” The overall hat expense was part of a $5 million outlay to Victory Enterprises, a political consulting group in Iowa.

“To date, the Binkley campaign has produced more than 50,000 hats,” said Heath Flock, the director of Mr. Binkley’s campaign. “Yes, this is a lot of hats.”

Mr. Flock added: “We used Binkley-branded hats as giveaways at all of our campaign events, and as a contribution incentive. While other presidential campaigns solicited donations by offering free gas cards or college tuition incentives, we simply offered our hats as a thank-you to people who donated to our campaign.”

Mr. Binkley wasn’t the only candidate whose operation spent large on merch. The super PAC backing Ron DeSantis, Never Back Down, paid a vendor $43,000 for “canvassing field operations uniforms” as it deployed door-knockers across early nominating states.

Representatives for Never Back Down did not respond to requests for comment.

The super PAC also paid $13,858 for “collateral materials” — jackets, pins, flags — from ACE Specialties, a Louisiana company.

Curiously, the company also bills itself as the “Official Merchandiser” for Mr. Trump’s campaign. The former president’s joint fund-raising committee paid ACE nearly $79,000 for line items such as “collateral: flags and hats” and “collateral: apparel, hats, stickers and freight.”

If you’re running for president and aren’t wearing a signature hat, you need to have good hair.

It is clear that politicians should pay attention to their presentation and polish — but voters tend to raise their eyebrows at big personal grooming and clothing expenses. Remember John Edwards’s $400 haircuts? Or Sarah Palin’s $150,000 wardrobe, provided by the Republican National Committee?

Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC, made two payments last year totaling $6,675.93 to Haus of Beauty, a Tallahassee beauty salon, for “Personnel Service/Equipment.”

A representative for Never Back Down declined to comment. The beauty salon did not respond to a request for comment.

Ice cream stops are such a political cliché, “Veep” built an entire episode around a visit to a frozen yogurt shop. So far this cycle, candidates and political committees have spent upward of $10,000 on ice cream events, according to a New York Times analysis.

A few favorite spots stand out, including Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a chain that started in Ohio, and Ice Cream Jubilee in Washington, D.C.

Most of the expenses are for several hundred dollars. One exception is Representative Chip Roy of Texas, whose campaign reported a $17.52 expense at a Jeni’s location in Virginia in November.

Curiously, the Ice Cream Eater in Chief — President Biden — has listed no obvious expenditures for ice cream so far this year. On Monday, he ordered a pink boba tea at a campaign stop in Nevada.

Michael C. Bender and Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.

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