Republican Second Congressional District candidate Tyler Kistner reimbursed himself nearly $7,000 for mileage in his latest campaign finance report, an unusually high number for his mostly suburban district that campaign finance watchdogs say raises questions about his spending and the campaign's transparency.
Kistner's reimbursement equates to driving nearly 12,400 miles between launching his second campaign for the district on April 20 and early July, or around 160 miles each day. He also reimbursed himself $2,963 for mileage in February, more than two months before he launched his second run against DFL U.S. Rep. Angie Craig.
Minnesota's Second District covers 3,000 square miles of the southern Twin Cities metro and some rural communities, spanning roughly 120 miles across from its farthest edges.
"That is a whole lot of miles for any campaign, especially for a campaign in a fairly small suburban district," Craig Holman, a Capitol Hill lobbyist who focuses on ethics for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said in an e-mail. He questioned whether Kistner is using his campaign funds for personal benefit and said Kistner's "mileage reimbursement certainly appears excessive."
Kistner's campaign did not provide his travel logs to the Star Tribune, but is defending the reimbursements, arguing the Marine Corps veteran from Prior Lake has been traveling across the district. Kistner posted about a half dozen public campaign events on his Facebook page between April and the beginning of July, including his campaign launch.
"Tyler has put thousands of miles on his personal vehicle traveling to every corner of the Second District meeting with voters about their concerns, and the importance of having a true servant leader representing them in Congress," said Tyler Dunn, a spokesman for the Kistner for Congress campaign, in response to mileage questions. "We thoroughly log and review all expenses, and in accordance with FEC guidance, the campaign has reimbursed Tyler for the cost of this campaign travel."
It's legal for federal candidates to reimburse themselves for campaign miles driven in their personal vehicles, but using campaign funds for personal use is prohibited. Other candidates have faced scrutiny in the past for abnormal mileage reimbursements, including former Republican Illinois U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, who resigned amid criticism over the matter in 2015.
Since launching his first campaign for the Second District in January 2020, Kistner has reimbursed himself a total of more than $26,000 from his campaign accounts for mileage, which equates to roughly 46,000 miles, or around 84 miles per day through early July of this year. That's the same as driving the width of the United States more than 16 times.
"Forty-six thousand miles is an awfully high number. Even if you've included driving out of state for things, that's a lot," said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer and FEC expert at Washington, D.C., firm Harmon Curran. "There are plausible explanations for a high mileage reimbursement rate, but 46,000 is extremely high."
The FEC requires candidates to maintain a log of expenses so the commission can determine on a case-by-case basis what portion was for personal use rather than for campaign-related activity or official elected duties.
"Voters do have a right to know how campaigns are spending their money and whether that spending is being used as candidates claim it is," said Brendan Quinn, senior communications manager for campaign finance and ethics at Campaign Legal Center.
Mileage reimbursements for candidates are typically calculated using the IRS standard mileage rate, which was 57.5 cents per mile in 2020 and 56 cents per mile in 2021. The FEC doesn't cap mileage reimbursements but does recommend candidates use the IRS reimbursement rate. The commission can ask for additional information on campaign expenses if there's a possibility of an issue.
Experts note mileage, which covers gas, maintenance and wear on a vehicle, is a broad category that can be reimbursed for traveling to and from official events, fundraising, knocking on doors, meeting with other party officials across the state and driving to a campaign headquarters. Kistner's campaign headquarters is in Apple Valley, according to campaign finance filings, less than 20 miles from Prior Lake.
Some congressional districts are large and candidates traveling by car could quickly rack up tens of thousands of miles. In North Dakota, only one congressional district covers the entire state. In Minnesota, the sprawling Seventh Congressional District stretches across almost the entire western border, encompassing nearly 32,000 square miles.
Since she launched her first campaign for Congress in September 2019, Republican U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach has donated roughly $8,000 in mileage reimbursements to her own campaign, according to campaign finance records.
Many candidates treat personal mileage reimbursements as in-kind donations to their own election efforts, reserving those funds for other campaign activities. Craig, a two-term Democrat from Eagan who is on her fourth run for the seat, has not reimbursed herself for personal miles driven in her campaigns, according to a spokesperson.
Kistner's campaign reported having a little over $237,000 on hand for his campaign in the most recent campaign finance filing, along with around $79,000 in debts.
Other Republican congressional candidates around the country have reimbursed themselves for little or no mileage during this cycle, with Election Day nearly a year away and many events still being held virtually due to COVID-19 concerns.
Experts note some candidates are independently wealthy or financially able to lend mileage donations to their campaign, while others need help to manage the campaign wear on their personal vehicle. Kistner's LinkedIn page lists his day job as small-business owner and consultant.
Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert faced scrutiny from ethics experts this year after she reimbursed herself more than $21,000 between April and early November of 2020, which would have equated to driving roughly 37,000 miles during that time period, which is more than the circumference of the planet.
"I'm trying to think of a plausible explanation it would be so high," said Kappel of Kistner's nearly 46,000 miles over his two campaigns. "I'm having a hard time coming up with something."