Five Minnesota state Senate races in 2022 attracted more than $1 million in independent expenditure money with one nearly reaching $2 million.
In addition, six state House races received at least $700,000, according to campaign finance filings released this week that cover all of 2022.
Of those 11 most expensive campaigns in terms of independent expenditures, the DFL candidates won nine and came within 33 votes in a House race of winning 10 and 186 votes in a Senate race of winning all of them.
Those results illustrate a fact of politics in Minnesota: the DFL has developed a more-successful apparatus to raise and spend money to elect candidates for state Legislature and the five statewide partisan offices. Eight of the 10 most prolific independent expenditure committees are DFL-affiliated groups, led by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota that distributed $15.8 million, mostly to defend Gov. Tim Walz.
The state DFL central committee finished second with independent spending of $9.5 million, though the party raised and spent $36.7 million and is the largest financial player in state campaigns. In contrast, the state GOP spent just $1.36 million last year with only $50,000 going to independent expenditures.
Only Minnesota for Freedom, the state arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association, and Advance Minnesota, a committee affiliated with the national GOPAC, broke the top 10 at No. 6 and No. 8.
GOP caucus committees and business-affiliated campaigns dominate the listings between 11 and 20. The Minnesota Jobs Coalition affiliated with the national Republican State Leadership Committee spent $1.9 million, and the Pro Jobs Majority — the campaign arm of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce — spent just over $1 million. The Coalition of Minnesota Businesses is affiliated with the Minnesota Business Partnership and spent $765,000.
Unions, environmental funds and abortion rights advocates made up the rest of the DFL support network.
Independent expenditures are separate from what candidates raise and spend on their own. By law, independent expenditures cannot be made in consultation with the candidates they are meant to help. While independent expenditures can be spent either to support one candidate or oppose another, they tend to be spent on negative campaigns.
The DFL domination in campaign spending shows up most starkly in the campaigns for statewide elected offices, especially those that drew national attention. Independent expenditure campaigns spent $19.6 million to benefit Walz’s reelection, most on attack ads against GOP nominee Scott Jensen and most of that by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
Jensen, by comparison, benefited from just $1.9 million in independent expenditures.
The race for attorney general and the race for secretary of state drew far more out of state independent money than the governor’s race. Four of the top 10 spenders are national groups interested in those races — the Republican Attorneys General Association, Minnesota for Freedom, the Democratic Attorneys General Association People’s Lawyer Project, Safe Accessible Fair Elections Minnesota and iVote. The latter two worked to reelect Democratic secretaries of state.
The campaign of DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison was boosted by $5 million. His GOP opponent, Jim Schultz, was supported with $3.4 million. Other than the governor’s campaign, the most-glaring mismatch in independent spending was in Secretary of State Steve Simons’s successful reelection campaign. He benefited from $5.8 million in independent spending, much from iVote and SAFE. GOP nominee Kim Crockett was helped by only $710,000.
The money that flowed into the legislative campaigns tracked closely to what both the caucus campaign committees and funders decided early last year were the battleground races. In other words, the races that were expected to determine whether the DFL or the GOP controlled the House and Senate attracted the most independent money.
The most expensive legislative race was in District 36 where DFL candidate Heather Gustafson of Vadnais Heights defeated GOP incumbent Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes. There, $1.9 million was spent by independent groups with nearly $1.4 million benefiting Gustafson. That race, more than any other, is why the DFL won a single-seat majority in the Senate and a trifecta for the 2023 legislative session.
The one race among the top 5 where the DFL lost was District 35. It wasn’t for lack of trying. DFL candidate Kari Rehrauer’s campaign was helped from $1.2 million in independent expenditures vs. the $300,000 for incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Abeler.
Abeler won by 186 votes.
The most-expensive House race was 14b in the St. Cloud area where DFL incumbent Dan Wolgamott topped Aaron Henning with 51.8% of the vote. Wolgamott benefited from $474,000 and Henning by $411,000.
But No. 2 is the race in District 3a where Natalie Zeleznikar, a Republican from Fredenberg Township defeated incumbent DFLer Mary Murphy of Hermantown by 33 votes. Murphy was helped with $441,000 in independent expenditure spending; Zeleznikar had $403,000.
The one pairing of House seats that were battlegrounds came in 35a and 35b where a total of $1.6 million was dropped. DFLers won both seats — Zack Stephenson of Coon Rapids in 35a and Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids in 35b.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct that the candidates in 3a were separated by 33 votes, not 233 votes.