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A field guide to green: the outside groups that will be spending tens of millions in Minnesota this election season

With four top-tier House contests and a nationally-watched Senate race, Minnesota is a top target for outside campaign groups.

PAC logos

Debates over the 2018 midterms have centered on whether there will be a so-called “blue wave” that sweeps Democrats into power, but one phenomenon is crystal-clear: there will be a tidal wave of political spending by outside groups hoping to influence key races for U.S. House and Senate.

Call it the “green wave,” if you like — and there’s no question it’ll be crashing down hard on Minnesota. The state is home to four top-tier House contests and a nationally-watched Senate race, making it one of the country’s biggest battlegrounds as Democrats and Republicans fight for control of Congress. It’s possible no single media market in the country will be saturated with more political communication than that of the Twin Cities, where TV and radio stations reach voters in virtually every competitive race.

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Many of those ads will inform you that they’re paid for by a group you may not recognize: maybe their political bent will be clearly identified, like with the National Republican Congressional Committee; other times, they’ll have a generic name like “House Majority PAC.”

Political spending groups:
A glossary

PAC: Your regular, run-of-the-mill political action committee, which tend to be linked to specific politicians and business interests. A PAC is subject to limits on the amount of money it can contribute to candidates and other committees. These limits vary, but most regular PACs aren’t able to give much more money than a private citizen does. Most PACs can also receive a maximum of $5,000 per year from individuals, parties, and other PACs.

Though they are limited in how much money they can take in and dole out, PACs can give to a wide variety of entities, from candidate committees to national party committees and other PACs. PACs must disclose on a regular basis who gave them money, and how much.

Super PAC: These are the big players in big money — they can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, money that typically comes from deep-pocketed politicians, wealthy donors, corporations, and labor unions. The catch is that super PACs cannot directly contribute to campaigns, and they cannot communicate with campaigns to discuss strategy.

The role of super PACs, then, is to flood races with communications, like TV ads — so-called “independent expenditures” — supporting or opposing candidates. You can thank super PACs for most of the ads that will blanket your TV and radio in the run-up to Election Day.

While regular PACs have been around forever, super PACs are a relatively new creation, springing from a 2010 Supreme Court decision. (Not Citizens United.) So far this election cycle, super PACs have spent nearly $215 million nationwide. Federal election law requires super PACs to disclose their donors on a regular basis.

501(c)(4): This is a kind of nonprofit defined by U.S. tax code as a “social welfare” organization. Some major 501(c)(4) organizations are as influential as major PACs, but they’re subject to an entirely different set of rules.

501(c)(4)s may engage in election-related activity, including explicit advocacy for certain political candidates. But to maintain their tax-exempt nonprofit status, that kind of advocacy cannot constitute their main activity, so they devote most of their resources toward lobbying lawmakers or conducting grassroots political organizing on policy issues.

Though 501(c)(4)s must be careful about how often they go to bat for candidates, they do have a powerful advantage over other groups: they do not have to disclose their donors. They only need to submit a portion of their Form 990, a key IRS form for nonprofits, for public review each year.

501(c)(4)s have emerged as a leading source of so-called “dark money” in politics: in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that they could accept unlimited amounts of corporate and labor union money without disclosing its sources.

Party campaign committees: There’s only four of them — Democrats’ and Republicans’ House and Senate campaign arms — but they play outsized roles in elections, and are also subject to a specific set of rules governing how they can operate.

The party committees directly give money to campaign committees and provide advice and strategy to candidates, but they also operate separate independent expenditure arms that function more like super PACs. They cannot communicate with campaigns, but they can spend unlimited amounts on advertisements in races. The vast majority of money spent by the party campaign committees goes toward independent expenditures rather than direct campaign contributions.

These are outside groups — the nationally-significant big money behemoths who spend huge sums of money on TV and radio ads, digital ads, and mailers to send you a message about a particular candidate. Between now and Election Day, you’ll be hearing a lot from these groups, and what they decide to do in a close race can directly shape its outcome. Here’s a field guide to Minnesota’s biggest outside money players.

The Democrats

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)

The DCCC is the Democratic Party’s official arm for U.S. House campaigns. Its task: erase Republicans’ 23-seat majority in the House and take control of the chamber for the first time since 2010.

Taking the House is seen as a more feasible goal for Democrats than reclaiming the Senate: even though the GOP only has a two-seat majority in the upper chamber, Democrats are defending far more seats there and aren’t in as much of a position to go on offense.

Because of that, progressives’ Trump-era energy has focused on the House, and the DCCC has the receipts to show for it: it has raised a whopping $190 million this election cycle, and has spent $125 million of that total.

The DCCC must publicly show in its Federal Election Commission filings who gives it money, and how much; it is mostly fueled by big donations from Democratic members of Congress, along with well-known Democratic mega-donors like George Soros. A big chunk of the DCCC’s haul also comes from small-dollar donors making contributions through conduits like ActBlue.

The DCCC gives money to campaigns and offers support and strategy, but you’re most likely to encounter it on the airwaves, running attack ads against Republicans. (You might remember some of their greatest hits, like the 2014 nailing of 8th District GOP candidate Stewart Mills as a yacht-owning, lobster-eating rich guy.)

All four of the Democrats running in Minnesota’s most competitive districts are part of the DCCC’s so-called “Red to Blue” program, which singles out the party’s most promising recruits in key races for special support. (Never mind that some of these districts, like CD1, are already “blue” and have been for some time.)

The DCCC has already reserved $545,000 in media buys for one of them, Dan Feehan, a former Obama administration official who is running to succeed Rep. Tim Walz. Some of that will go toward negative ads against his opponent, Republican Jim Hagedorn; much of it will also go toward introducing CD1 voters to the first-time candidate.

The group is expected to make big investments in the other three Democratic candidates: Angie Craig in the 2nd District, Dean Phillips in the 3rd District, and Joe Radinovich in the 8th District.

DFL Rep. Betty McCollum serves as a vice chair at the DCCC, focused on races in the Midwest and Great Plains states.

House Majority PAC (HMP)

After the DCCC, House Majority PAC is the most important Democratic organization devoted to taking the House. HMP is not officially affiliated with the party, but it’s closely linked to Democrats’ most high-profile D.C. figure: Nancy Pelosi, the party’s House leader.

HMP was founded after the 2010 “shellacking” of Democrats by Tea Party-fueled Republicans, and was intended to counter a raft of pro-GOP spending. The PAC has since become a key part of Democrats’ election infrastructure: in 2016, it raised $56 million, the sixth-highest haul of any super PAC.

So far this cycle, HMP has raised over $35 million and spent over $13 million to boost Democrats. Like the DCCC, HMP is fueled by large donors — DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg has given $250,000 — and by powerful labor unions that typically bankroll Democratic campaign efforts, like the American Federation of Teachers.

HMP is likely to spend much of its money running negative ads against Republican incumbents. A top target in Minnesota for the group is 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen, who has been hit with digital attack ads and even a billboard on the side of Highway 7 in Minnetonka, which mocked his reputation as a “math guy.” The PAC also bankrolled three billboards in CD3 touting Phillips as a “Minnesota businessman.” (Records show HMP has spent over $260,000 so far for the CD3 race.)

Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC)

Most of the outside money juice in Minnesota this cycle is for House races, but that doesn’t mean that Senate-focused organizations won’t be playing, too. The DSCC, the Democratic Party’s official arm for Senate races, is one of the biggest, and it’s already working in Minnesota on behalf of DFL Sen. Tina Smith, who is running in the special election for this seat after Al Franken resigned in January.

Like the DCCC, the DSCC is funded by incumbent senators, big donors, and corporate PACs. So far, the group has raised $145 million and spent $144 million in its attempt to shore up vulnerable Democrats, 10 of whom are running in states Trump won, while trying to pick off GOP-held seats in Nevada and Tennessee.

The DSCC has set aside $126,000 in “independent expenditure” funds — ads promoting Smith or slamming her opponent, state Sen. Karin Housley — making her the fourth-biggest beneficiary of DSCC independent expenditure funds so far.

It’s unclear, however, if the DSCC will be a major presence in Minnesota’s Senate special election. There are a dozen races that are higher on the Democratic Party’s priority list, and Smith is raising money at a solid pace herself. It won’t be a great sign for Smith or for Democrats if the DSCC has to substantially step up its air cover for the former lieutenant governor, who was appointed to this seat by Gov. Mark Dayton.

One race you can be certain the DSCC will not get involved in is the other U.S. Senate race on the ballot: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is on track to coast to a third term.

Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health provider and advocacy group, is a major political player, spending millions each election to promote pro-choice candidates and viewpoints. That mission, increasingly, means that virtually all of Planned Parenthood’s considerable resources go toward Democratic candidates.

Planned Parenthood conducts its political spending through three organizations: Planned Parenthood Votes, a super PAC, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund PAC, which is another super PAC, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Typically, the same group of donors that give big to organizations like the DCCC bankroll Planned Parenthood, though the group counts other prominent figures, like the billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, as top donors.

So far, Planned Parenthood has spent close to $3 million on ads and mailers in key Senate and House races. It has stated its goal is to spend $20 million boosting candidates in eight states, including Minnesota. One of the group’s main goals will be helping out one of their own: Sen. Smith, who was formerly the executive director of Planned Parenthood in Minnesota. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund has spent close to $300,000 on Smith’s behalf.

End Citizens United PAC (ECU)

It’s a bit ironic that a group devoted to campaign finance reform and mitigating the influence of money in politics is poised to be a big money player in the 2018 elections, but here we are.

End Citizens United has endorsed a slate of candidates, all of whom are Democrats, who embrace its platform — centered on reinstating campaign contribution limits and improving the transparency of political money — and it has raised nearly $21 million toward helping them win.

In Minnesota, Feehan, Craig, Phillips, Radinovich, Klobuchar, and Smith have received ECU’s stamp of approval, as has state Rep. Ilhan Omar, the overwhelming favorite to pick up the 5th Congressional District seat.

The group’s PAC has doled out over $850,000 in contributions to candidates, but it also figures to be a leading spender on TV ads and other independent expenditures. ECU has gone all-in already for Phillips, who has drawn attention for making campaign finance issues a centerpiece for his campaign.

The group has financed a $740,000 TV and digital ad campaign that highlights Paulsen as a top taker of money from political and corporate super PACs.

The Republicans

National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC)

The NRCC is the Republican Party’s official House campaign arm, and it has a big job: protecting the GOP’s narrow majority in a midterm election, a tall order with a historically unpopular president.

In Minnesota, the NRCC has a big to-do list: win in two open seat races, the 1st and the 8th, that have long been held by Democrats, and defend two vulnerable incumbents in the 2nd and 3rd. Expect to hear a lot from the group over the next few months: the NRCC is already running attack ads against Democrats in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd District races.

It plans to spend some $360,000 per week backing up CD1 candidate Jim Hagedorn until election day, and at least $200,000 per week doing the same for Rep. Lewis in CD2. The NRCC has also reserved some $1.2 million to aid Paulsen in CD3. The GOP’s candidate in CD8, Pete Stauber, is a member of the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program that supports top recruits, and will earn his share of support, too.

These big investments have gone toward bankrolling attack ads against these Republicans’ DFL opponents: in an ad, the NRCC is focusing, for example, on whether Phillips is telling the truth about providing health care to his employees at his Penny’s Coffee in Minneapolis; in their first CD1 ad, it threw the kitchen sink at Feehan, framing him as a Pelosi-backed, carpet-bagging liberal.

Like the DCCC, the NRCC will have plenty of money to work its strategy: it has raised $144 million so far, and has spent $88 million backing up its candidates. The group draws lots of cash from members of Congress — over $7 million from Speaker Paul Ryan, for example — as well as from corporations and top GOP donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

One of the top officials at the NRCC this cycle is 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer, who is deputy chair, focusing on the organization’s “future operations.”

Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF)

There’s a chance you may have already heard of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that runs ads and conducts field organizing on behalf of Republicans. The CLF has operated a field office in CD3 for months, and it’s also been running lots of TV and digital ads.

CLF is something like a counterpart to House Majority PAC: it’s Republicans’ most important House campaign organization after the NRCC, and it’s closely linked to Speaker Ryan and establishment Republicans. The group has raised a whopping $100 million so far this election cycle, double what it raised in the entire 2016 election cycle, and it’s already spent $36 million to boost House Republicans.

So you’ll be hearing a lot more from the CLF than you did last election — especially if you live in CD3 or CD8. The group has spent $675,000 to back Paulsen so far, most of that going toward negative ads against Phillips that hit similar themes as the NRCC’s communications.

CLF was also the first big GOP group to get into CD8, dropping $495,000 on negative ads against DFL candidate Radinovich. The group ran a new ad this week that trumpeted the Democrat’s past speeding tickets, as well as a drug paraphernalia charge against him when he was younger.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the country’s largest pro-business political group, lobbying on behalf of some of the biggest American corporations. It’s also a political spending giant: in this election cycle, it has spent $12 million to boost candidates, the majority of whom are Republicans facing difficult races.

In Minnesota, the Chamber will be one of the leading national groups backing up Paulsen, who is well-liked in the corporate world the Chamber represents. This year, the group has been spending big to boost the Republican congressman: In the spring, it bankrolled a $500,000 campaign to tout his support for the GOP tax bill.

The Chamber is also the number one “dark money” group in the U.S., according to a new report from nonprofit watchdog group Issue One, having spent a combined $130 million in the last three elections. While the Chamber does not have to disclose who contributes to it, the Issue One report found that major companies like Maplewood-based 3M have given millions to the group.

American Action Network (AAN)

The American Action Network is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that brands itself as a center-right political and policy analysis organization. The AAN was founded by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, and prominent national Republicans sit on its board, along with Minnesota-D.C. players like former Rep. Vin Weber.

Since it is an “issue-based” advocacy organization, you’re not likely to see the AAN inundating your TV or mailbox with negative ads. It will be focusing its resources on shoring up congressional Republicans and highlighting their work on specific issues, like tax cuts.

This year, the AAN promoted the GOP tax bill with a $1 million ad campaign in 26 districts, including CD3. (“Thank Congressman Paulsen for cutting taxes,” said the ad, which typifies the tone of AAN’s ads. “Tell him to keep fighting for working families.”) In July, the AAN spent $2 million on a TV ad campaign promoting House Republicans’ efforts to counter the opioid crisis. Paulsen was one of 28 Republicans benefited by that ad campaign.

AAN is closely linked with CLF, with which it shares the same executive director. As a 501(c)(4), AAN is not required to disclose its donors, but watchdogs have reported that it is largely bankrolled by powerful business interests, like the fossil fuels and pharmaceutical industries.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP)

Americans for Prosperity, also a 501(c)(4) advocacy nonprofit, is best-known as a political and organizing arm of the billionaire Koch brothers and their expansive donor network, who have made it a mission to use much of their fortunes to advance conservative-libertarian causes and candidates.

Paulsen was one of eight House Republicans to earn the first wave of AFP endorsements in August. All of them are considered among the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.

Unlike most outside groups that spend heavily on congressional races, AFP’s calling card is its field organizing efforts: It bills itself as one of the largest grassroots conservative organizations in the country, and its endorsement of a candidate guarantees not only support via TV ads and mail ads, but access to phone bankers and canvassers, too.

AFP has spent some $8.6 million in outside spending so far this cycle, putting it on pace to match or surpass the $13.3 million it dropped in 2016.

National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC)

The NRSC is the national GOP’s official arm for U.S. Senate races. They haven’t officially jumped into Minnesota yet with any money, but the special election between Smith and Housley is very much on their radar: their press shop has been sending out press releases attacking Smith, and the group has nothing but good things to say about Housley, who is viewed as a strong recruit by many D.C. Republicans who make up the group’s braintrust.

However, with several must-win races on the NRSC’s docket — like battles against Democratic incumbents in deep-red states such as North Dakota and West Virginia — it has to be judicious about where it spends its money. (It has raised $83 million and spent $68 million, so it’s been outgunned by its Democratic rivals at the DSCC.)

Most polling on the special election race has shown Smith with a lead that ranges anywhere from 9 to 7 points. If the NRSC does pour some money into this race, it probably will be closer to Election Day, and it will be a reflection that Housley has a shot to beat Smith.