WASHINGTON — Minnesota’s 8th District race was one of outside groups’ favorite targets in 2012.
This cycle is shaping up to be more of the same.
Outside groups have already spent at least $775,000 on advertisements in the race between Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan and his Republican challenger Stewart Mills. Within the last few weeks, both the Republican and Democratic campaign committees have indicated they could spend $1 million or more there this fall, and partisan PACs and big-money players like Americans for Prosperity have expressed interest (and already spent some cash) in the district.
Early indications are that the 7th District contest between Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson and Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom could see its share of outside attention, too. A Republican super PAC has already spent $185,000 against Peterson, and the campaign committees have pledged money there as well.
Peterson’s race was hardly even a blip on outside groups’ radars in 2012, drawing only $16,000 in outside money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But in the 8th, where Democrats and Republicans fought desperately over then-Rep. Chip Cravaack's seat, groups flooded the district, spending almost $9.2 million on a race Nolan would win by 9 points.
Operatives on both sides of the aisle said there isn’t anything inherently special about the Nolan or Peterson races beyond perceived competitiveness this fall. Many of the groups are still strategizing, but officials said they expect to play a big role in what are projected to be Minnesota’s most-watched U.S. House races.
Who’s on the air?
Take, for example, American Action Network, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman’s political outfit. His group hasn’t made its fall ad reservations yet (in 2012, it did so in July), but AAN is already active in the 8th, putting $50,000 behind an anti-Nolan ad in March.
“Minnesota is a natural focus for American Action Network, given Norm Coleman’s deep roots and leadership in the state,” spokeswoman Emily Davis said. “Norm remains very connected and involved in promoting center-right policies and candidates in his home state.”
AAN poured $1.7 million into the 8th in 2012, almost all of it attacking Nolan. The group went up with six ads over the course of the election, and while AAN hasn’t formalized its plans there this fall, Davis said they could take a similar approach this time around.
“Rick Nolan has proven himself to be most out of touch with his district: liberal policies that don’t reflect the current, independent values of his district,” she said. “His extreme, liberal record has made the race the most competitive in the state.”
AAN’s foil is the House Majority PAC, one of the most active super PACs supporting Democratic House candidates in 2012. The group spent almost $1.4 million to knock off Cravaack last cycle, targeting everything from his support for a GOP budget plan to his office’s vehicle lease.
“What we tend to like to do is make these races as local and specific as we can,” spokesman Matt Thornton said.
House Majority PAC has reserved more than $350,000 in ad time for the 8th District race this year, and an additional $329,000 in the Minneapolis market as a whole. The group, which spent more than $151,000 against Rep. John Kline in 2012, has also reserved $329,000 for that race.
(A note about reservations: committees reserve ad space early to lock in lower rate, but they’re not required to spend the whole amount or to spend it on the races they initially say they’re targeting. Money reserved for the 7th District race, for example, could go to the 8th or any other race the group wants.)
AAN and House Majority PAC are going to have company in the 8th District. The Chamber of Commerce has already dropped $500,000 on a pro-Mills ad this year, according to the Federal Election Commission, and Americans for Prosperity spent a reported $225,000 on an ad against Nolan in December. Groups like the AFL-CIO, the NRA or others could drop in, as they did in 2012, and the party committees are certain to play as well.
7th District could see spending
Peterson’s campaign attracted only $16,000 in outside money last year. His race against state Sen. Torrey Westrom is already pacing that figure this year.
The American Future Fund, a tax-exempt group from Des Moines, spent $187,000 on an ad against Peterson in December, according to the FEC, and the National Republican Congressional Committee had a $58,000 buy against him when he announced his re-election plans in March.
Peterson said the threat of outside money isn’t going to change how he runs his campaign.
“I’ve tried to get people at home concerned about this,” Peterson said. “What I’ve heard from a whole bunch of people is, they can do whatever they want, they can spend all this money, it’s not going to make any difference, we know who you are and our voters are smarter than this. So if they want to waste their money, let them have it.”
In all, the NRCC has reserved $3.2 million in ad time in Minneapolis this fall. A spokesman said, “We are fully committed to beating Rick Nolan and longtime incumbent Collin Peterson in November.”
The NRCC’s Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has reserved $1 million for Nolan’s race and $1.5 million for Peterson’s. The group put out a memo earlier this month saying it was “on offense in Minnesota,” and that Republicans “in district after district have made it clear they would rather side with the ultra-wealthy and the special interests.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics' Viveca Novak, outside groups have already spent at least $120 million on federal races so far this cycle. Actual spending levels are probably higher than that, since a lot of groups use "issue ads" that ostensibly highlight issues but end up taking swipes at candidates along the way. Committees don't need to publicize how much they spend on those ads. (AFP's Nolan spot, for example, was an issue ad, though the group did release the size of its buy.)
In 2012, outside groups ended up spending more than $1 billion on races for the U.S. House, Senate and the presidency. Though spending this cycle is lagging a bit behind so far, “we’re really not into the heat of the election yet, so it is definitely possible that we will outstrip 2012,” Novak said.
Campaigns are barred from coordinating with outside groups, but they’re obviously well aware the groups are targeting their races. Nolan’s campaign, for example, has a two-minute segment of b-roll video on its website, available for anyone outside the campaign who might want some scenes of sincerity or wholesomeness for a hypothetical video of their own.
That’s not to say outside money is always welcome, especially for Democrats who have railed against the legal decisions that allowed more big-spending political groups to crop up. Don Bye, the chairman of the 8th District DFL, called the influx of money into his district “lamentable.”
“To the extent you have an inflow, I’m not one of those who likes it when it come in for Democrats and not like it when it comes in for Republicans,” Bye said. “I would like it much more if it didn’t come in for either party.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry