Who was supposed to be the front-runner in the Republican race to replace Rep. John Kline in the 2nd Congressional District?
There was Jason Lewis, the former radio host and the closest thing to a celebrity in Minnesota congressional politics aside from Sen. Al Franken. Darlene Miller, a businesswoman, got in the race late, but with substantial backing from the party establishment, including Kline himself. John Howe, a former state senator, has the only real political experience of anyone in the field.
And then, there was David Gerson, the strident Tea Partier who entered the race even before Kline retired — just itching to challenge the seven-term incumbent for a third time.
In theory, he should be somewhat of a longshot. He’s a steadfast conservative in a district that many see as ripe to switch to DFL hands, and he made few friends among the Republican Party establishment with his multiple challenges to Kline.
But the release of first quarter fundraising reports dumped some cold water on that theory. While Gerson wasn’t the top fundraiser, his total was far stronger than many observers expected. Meanwhile, his better-connected opponents posted relatively weak results.
Those hoping the first quarter fundraising results would help to clarify who’s serious and who’s a pretender in CD2 will be disappointed; as Gerson’s success shows, this is still anyone’s race.
Gerson of interest
Gerson, an engineer by training who lives in South St. Paul, pulled in $65,475 this quarter — less than Miller and Lewis, but ahead of Howe. Adding in a $25,000 loan, Gerson put over $91,000 in the bank in the first three months of 2016.
Sure, if Gerson were alone in a race against presumptive DFL nominee Angie Craig — who has $1.3 million on hand — no one would make much of his totals.
But in the muddled GOP race, the degree of Gerson’s success raised eyebrows, and gives him some momentum heading into the nominating convention, where he and Lewis are said to be running neck-and-neck in the delegate race.
What about his opponents?
This was Miller’s first shot to really impress: since the Burnsville native entered the race in January, many were eager to get a feel for the depth and breadth of her support.
Certainly, Miller raised a respectable amount, pulling in $207,000 in the first three months of the year. That’s the best single fundraising quarter of any of the GOP candidates so far.
Despite that, there’s a sense Miller fell short of expectations. A campaign’s first fundraising quarter is meant to be particularly strong, with the candidate hitting the low-hanging fruit of family, friends, political and professional candidates, and perhaps a big donor or two. (For comparison, Craig posted $327,381 in the 2nd Quarter of 2015, her first fundraising report of the race.)
Some party insiders thought Miller needed to clear $300,000 or more to demonstrate her strength. But bold-faced GOP donors mostly stayed quiet. Minnesota mega-donor Stanley Hubbard, who contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the doomed presidential candidacies of Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie, wrote a check to Miller — for $250. (He has already given the maximum, $5,400, to 8th District GOP challenger Stewart Mills.)
Pressure was also on Lewis to have a strong quarter: the candidate with the highest level of name recognition in the district made a media splash upon entering the race in October, but he pulled in just over $100,000 during the first three months of his candidacy. In the first quarter of 2016, Lewis raised $122,000.
The best-funded candidate, in terms of sheer cash on hand, is Howe. That’s not due to donor enthusiasm, though: The former state senator from Red Wing raised just about $59,000 this quarter from donors. But thanks to loans he’s made to his own campaign, Howe has $672,000 in the bank, blowing away the rest of the field by a wide margin — Miller is at a distant second, with $160,000 cash on hand.
But Howe has not yet spent more than he has taken in from contributors, leading some to believe he is reluctant to put his own resources to use, at least at this stage.
Lewis and Gerson aim for endorsement
With first quarter fundraising results in, attention now turns to the party endorsement. That’s certainly the focus for Lewis and Gerson, who have said they will exit the race if they don’t get the Republican endorsement on May 7.
CD2 politicos have been surprised at the rate Lewis’ campaign has burned through its funds ahead of the convention. His campaign spent $102,000 last quarter, far more than any other candidate. Much of that went toward fundraising expenses, like pricey direct mail campaigns.
The result, Lewis’ camp says, is significant grassroots support. “Jason has built a donor base of more than 1,700 individual contributors through March 31… Over 90 percent of our contributors are from Minnesota,” said spokesman Jack Dwyer.
“We’ve developed a large, growing group of major donors and grassroots supporters and will have the resources necessary to win the Republican primary on August 9 and in the general election,” Dwyer said, adding that the Lewis camp is “enthused” with its fundraising performance thus far.
Gerson also spent a high percentage of what he brought in — around two-thirds. He explained that his strategy has been to raise funds outside the district, and to spend nearly all his cash on organizing to win the endorsement.
“I haven’t been asking [district Republicans] for donations,” Gerson said. “I’m asking them to become activists… I’ve been calling around the country, reaching out to the national conservative movement to get them to support our campaign. We’ve had a tremendous reception, they know who we are and what we accomplished here.”
Filings with the Federal Election Commission confirm that strategy: only four percent of what Gerson has raised comes from the state of Minnesota. No other campaign has raised a majority of its funds from out-of-state donors.
But national money could be a significant factor for either Gerson or Lewis. Gerson said he traveled to Washington to meet with congressmen in the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is planning to play an increased role in supporting conservative upstarts like Gerson in districts nationwide. Both Gerson and Lewis said they would join the Freedom Caucus if elected.
With that in mind, Gerson says he’s not worried about his money situation, because he believes whoever wins the endorsement will benefit from a big influx of cash. “Donors wait until they see who the endorsed candidate is,” he says. “All the dynamics completely change when you get the endorsement… The national money will be here, the local money will be here.”
And then there’s the primary
But even if that endorsement does bring in more cash, it won’t be smooth sailing for the endorsee: they’re going to face one, if not two, well-funded candidates who could mitigate any financial boost from the party’s official endorsement.
Miller, the late entry, has signaled a primary challenge from the get-go; Howe hasn’t explicitly said one way or the other, but he does sound like a candidate thinking past May 7.
In the fundraising sphere, the endorsement may mean less than it used to. Establishment-minded donors in Minnesota and Washington seeking a more moderate candidate to take on Craig may not like the GOP’s odds with Lewis or Gerson on the ticket in November.
Just as those angling for the endorsement believe the floodgates will open with the party’s backing, the Miller camp believes donors will begin to come off the sidelines once the primary battle begins. Kline’s support will be key: already, familiar donors to his campaigns have stepped up for Miller.
Miller told MinnPost her campaign is “feeling wonderful” about the resources it has. “We would love to raise more absolutely, and will continue to do so… I am working really hard to get my name out there,” she said.
Howe, meanwhile, has the cash-on-hand to compete with anyone in the primary. “If my name is on the general election ballot, I will spend a significant amount of my personal resources,” he said. “People who know me, they understand I’m in it to win it.” He added that he’ll “spend whatever resources it takes” to win the primary, if it comes to that.
The primary contest is scheduled for August 9, so a long three months of expensive campaigning awaits the three candidates. While each candidate remains focused on the endorsement — at least publicly — the reality is, it’s already time to begin thinking a few chess moves ahead, said GOP strategist John Rouleau.
“With a divided field on the Republican side,” he said, “it is important that candidates show they can raise the resources needed to win without simply relying on the assumption that fundraising will automatically ramp up following the endorsement and post-primary.”