Competitive U.S. House races cost millions — does any of that money benefit the district?

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

For political junkies, competitive congressional races are exciting — but for everyone else, they’re tedious. These days, close contests prompt tidal waves of money from party committees, super PACs, and other outside groups — not to mention the campaigns themselves — and most of that money that goes toward funding an endless barrage of attack ads.

If you live in Duluth or Brainerd, you might have wanted to unplug your TV by November 2014, lest you see another ad about Rick Nolan wanting to take away your guns and Stewart Mills’ yacht.

This year, Minnesota will enjoy — or, depending how you see it, suffer — a rare phenomenon: two legitimately competitive U.S. House races. There is the open-seat contest to replace GOP Rep. John Kline in the Second District, and Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan’s rematch against GOP challenger Stewart Mills in the Eighth District. The Cook Political Report, which rates the competitiveness of House races, places these two in the top 24. Most states don’t even have one.

Journalists and political observers tend to focus on where campaign cash comes from and how it might influence those who receive it. But it gets spent almost as quickly as it comes in. Real people earn money from all this spending, and the more competitive the race is, the more they stand to gain.

But does any of that spending actually benefit people in the district, who have to sit through its more unpleasant effects?

The most expensive race in Minnesota

The 2014 contest between Nolan and Mills was one of the closest contests in recent years, and ultimately, one of the most expensive elections in Minnesota history.

The 8th Congressional District, which encompasses northeastern Minnesota, leans slightly Democratic — it has a Cook Rating of D+1 — but has essentially been a swing district since longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar was upset by a low-profile GOP challenger, Chip Cravaack, in 2010.

After easily beating Cravaack in 2012, Nolan had a serious challenge in 2014 with Mills, a wealthy businessman. Looking to pick off vulnerable Democrats in a midterm year, the GOP and outside conservative groups made Nolan a top national target, leading to a huge influx of money on both sides.

Nolan narrowly prevailed, but not after both sides spent a fortune. Both the Mills and Nolan campaigns spent just over $2 million a piece. Outside groups added in a combined $12.7 million. In total, $16,941,507 was spent on the race, making it the sixth most expensive House contest in the country in 2014.

A full three-quarters of the money spent in the 8th District in 2014 came from a constellation of super PACs and nonprofits, and virtually all of that went toward political ads.

According to OpenSecrets.org, backers of Mills ran $5 million worth of ads against Nolan, and $990,000 worth of ads in favor of Mills. Those big Republican spenders include the National Rifle Association, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Republican Campaign Committee.

Meanwhile, backers of Nolan ran nearly $6 million worth of ads against Mills, and $750,000 worth of ads supporting Nolan. His biggest outside supporters include the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and public unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Because of varying disclosure requirements, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly how much of this outside cash was pocketed by TV and radio stations in the Duluth and Twin Cities media markets. But it’s likely a healthy amount: while the campaigns themselves often get preferred rates for ad airtime, outside groups pay top dollar.

The campaign committees themselves also forked over a pile of media cash. Of the $2,048,228 spent by the Nolan campaign, well over half — about $1.2 million — went toward making TV, radio, and online campaign ads, and buying time for them on the airwaves and the Internet; of the $2,083,131 Mills spent, $1.3 million went to media.

Campaigns typically don’t buy ads on local stations themselves — they contract with Beltway-based firms who serve as one-stop shops for political media. Those companies produce the ads that invade your TV, and then contact local stations to buy the airtime.

That system makes it hard to find out exactly how much local media profits from the ad bonanza that comes with a competitive election. Federal Election Commission reports show that Mills mainly worked with Virginia-based Strategic Media Services, a GOP-aligned communications firm. (They received $1.1 million.) Nolan’s campaign paid $1,152,000 to GMMB, a DC-based Democratic communication firm, for their media needs.

But the reports don’t show exactly how much money, for example, WDIO or KDLH in the Duluth-Superior market received for political ad buys. Campaign veterans say it’s generally accepted that media firms like GMMB will take home no more than 15 percent of a campaign’s media money — often, it’s more like five to ten percent.

Based on that, a conservative estimate of how much Duluth and Twin Cities stations took home from Nolan’s advertising expenses in 2014, for example, was roughly $980,000. The figure for how much those stations received from outside groups allied with Nolan is likely much, much higher.

Adam Sheingate is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies political campaigns, and he says that competitive races can be a lifeline for otherwise-struggling local media. “I remember talking to a guy who is a VP for advertising for a local ABC affiliate,” Sheingate says, “and he suggested they wouldn’t be able to survive without political spending in an election year.”

Pizzas, pickles, yard signs

Beyond media advertisements, the money campaigns spend in their districts is a comparative drop in the bucket, but it does make some difference.

In 2014, Nolan’s campaign spent $228,000 on fundraising expenses, and about $400,000 went toward staff salaries and administrative expenses. For Mills, $523,000 went to fundraising, and $320,000 funded staff salaries and administration.

Not many of those dollars stayed within the district: many went toward the bills, charges, and fees needed to keep a campaign going — think Verizon phone bills, American Airlines flights to fundraisers in D.C., payroll taxes.

Healthy parts of each campaign’s expenses also went to campaign staffers based in other parts of the state or country, but who relocated to the 8th District for extended periods of time during the campaign. So, a staffer from Minneapolis who lived in Brainerd for a few months had at least some type of economic impact.

Some of the campaign cash that actually stays in the district goes toward expenses that don’t quite constitute local stimulus, like the thousands Nolan’s camp spent at the Brainerd Post Office. But other dollars unquestionably help the local economy: thousands went to locals for their work, and for nights at Holiday Inns all over the district, and for meals at places like BGS Bar and Grill in Duluth and Ye Old Pickle Factory in Nisswa. ($1,185 worth of Ye Old Pickles, to be exact.)

Beyond that, money that goes to other parts of Minnesota can have an important impact, too. For example, printing shops across the state see a huge uptick in business during campaign season. DFL candidates always contract with the small handful of union print shops in Minnesota, so a competitive campaign in the 8th District can be a major windfall to a shop based in the Twin Cities or elsewhere. In 2014, Nolan spent $21,000 working with print businesses in Wyoming, Minnesota, and St. Paul, and totals like that are enough for the print shops to plan around election year income.

Double the fun in 2016

This year, the Mills-Nolan rematch will likely be as expensive as last time, if not more so, but Minnesota’s marquee race is in the 2nd District, currently one of only 16 open-seat, swing district contests in the whole country, per the Cook Report.

Democrats are lining up behind likely nominee Angie Craig, and the national party sees a golden opportunity to turn a red seat into a blue one. Republicans have an unpredictable path ahead, with several viable candidates competing for the GOP endorsement — and at least one promising a primary challenge.

Both parties and allied super PACs will spend heavily, so this race could go down as one of the most expensive in the country; it could even beat the Minnesota record — just around $20 million — set by former Rep. Michele Bachmann and DFL challenger Jim Graves in 2012.

When asked about what residents of each district can expect in economic impact this time around, campaign experts admitted it’s hard to say — but they weren’t exactly bullish.

“I don’t think it’s going to have a broad effect on people’s lives,” said Johns Hopkins’ Sheingate. “I think it’s going to affect principally the local TV stations… the rest of the money being spent in that race, on the pizzas and the signs, it’s going to benefit some people. I’d be cautious about how broad that benefit really is.”

Sheingate did say that certain campaign activity could be more of a boon to sparsely populated areas of the 8th District than the suburban 2nd. “In rural Minnesota, the Iron Range, maybe pumping a million dollars into that economy makes a difference, relative to the GDP of that area… It’s important to these businesses. When they think about their year, they’re factoring in this money. It’s not insignificant.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/05/2016 - 12:17 pm.

    Local TV?

    Are all/some/none of the Brainerd and Duluth TV stations owned locally? Or are they owned by far flung media conglomerates based far from here?

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