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Lacy Johnson had almost no chance of defeating Rep. Ilhan Omar. He still raised more money than any other congressional candidate in Minnesota

That may have been the whole point.

Lacy Johnson
According to data from OpenSecrets that cover the race from its start through November 23, Lacy Johnson raised $12.1 million, more than any other candidate for Congress in Minnesota.
Lacy Johnson for Congress

The outcome of the U.S. House race in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, between incumbent DFL Rep. Ilhan Omar and challenger Republican Lacy Johnson, wasn’t exactly in doubt on Election Day.

Minnesota’s Fifth is one of the most liberal districts in the U.S.: Minneapolis makes up about 60 percent of its population; the city’s closest suburbs make up the rest. And when polls closed and all the votes were counted, Omar had won with a 38 point margin. Joe Biden, who won Minnesota by a margin of 7 points, won CD5 by 62 points.  A Republican hasn’t represented the district in any of its various incarnations since the 1960s.

But despite the fact that a Republican faces long odds at best in the district, Congressional District 5 was the Minnesota Congressional race that saw the most fundraising by candidates in the run-up to the November election: nearly $18 million. The bulk of that money was raised by Johnson, a North Minneapolis resident and newcomer to politics.

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Record fundraising

According to Federal Elections Filings that cover the race from its start through November 23, Johnson raised $12.1 million, more than any other candidate for Congress in Minnesota, and significantly more than the $5.7 million Omar raised.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Erin Scott
Rep. Ilhan Omar
Nearly all of that money came from individual donors. Of Johnson’s individual donor haul, 73 percent came from small donors — those giving $200 or less. (Of the $5.7 million Omar’s campaign raised, $5.4 million came from individuals, 57 percent of them small-dollar donors. Omar raised $200,000 from other political committees.)

Both Johnson and Omar raised the bulk of their contributions from outside of the state, which is atypical for Congressional candidates in general but not atypical for high-profile ones. Ninety-three percent of Johnson’s contributions for which state-level donor information were available came from out-of-state, while 91 percent of Omar’s came from out-of-state.

Fundraising by Minnesota Congressional race
Source: OpenSecrets

Both Johnson and Omar spent almost all of what they raised this cycle.

Johnson’s campaign reported more than $4 million spent on credit card fees, mostly handled through WinRed, a platform that helps Republican candidates raise money.  (12/18 update: The Minnesota Reformer reported this week that many expenditures reported as credit card fees paid to WinRed were, in fact, money spent to fundraise that did not go to WinRed. The campaign has not updated its report). The filings say Johnson spent $2.9 million on direct mailings and $1.4 million on campaign consulting, according to data from the FEC and ProPublica.

Johnson ran roughly $961,000 in TV ads in the Twin Cities market from Sept. 1 through the end of the campaign, according to data compiled by the University of Minnesota’s Ad Watch project. Omar did not advertise on local TV networks in that time frame, according to the data.

FEC filings show Omar spent roughly $2.9 million on communications consulting, ads and other expenditures through E Street Group, a Washington, D.C. firm her husband co-owns. Her campaign cut ties with the firm after the election. She spent $195,000 on credit card fees.

Johnson outspent Omar on digital ads, per OpenSecrets, spending $1.5 million to Omar’s roughly $500,000. His ads on Facebook accused Omar of being involved in a “ballot harvesting” scandal that was debunked, claim liberal policies are destroying Black families and promote his policies on crime and poverty. Many of Omar’s Facebook ads focus on opposition to Trump or on get out the vote messaging.

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Did it make a difference?

All told, this year’s Fifth District race was far more expensive than past bids for the seat.

In 2018, when Omar first ran, she raised roughly $1.1 million, according to OpenSecrets. Her opponent, Republican Jennifer Zielinski, raised $23,355.

How did Omar’s share of the vote compare this year to 2018?

In 2018, Omar won 78 percent of the vote to Zielinski’s 22 percent. This year, Omar lost a sizable chunk of that vote share: she won 64 percent of the vote, while Johnson won 26 percent — slightly better than Zielinski did in 2018. But one factor that made this year different from 2018 was the presence of a third-party candidate: Legal Marijuana Now candidate Michael Moore won 10 percent of the vote.

Making a difference in the vote share may not have been the point of all the money Republicans raised and spent in the race, said Brendan Quinn, outreach and social media manager for OpenSecrets.

“This is something that we’ve seen happen a number of times, when there is an incumbent like Ilhan Omar who is so prominent, and in some circles, controversial,” he said. “The people who are running against these candidates often massively outraise them despite the fact that there is little to no chance of a Republican winning.”

Such was the case in California District 43, which covers part of Los Angeles, and where Republican Joe Collins spent $9.8 million to Democratic incumbent Maxine Waters’ $1.9 million. Waters won 74 percent of the vote to Collins’ 26 percent.

It was also the case in Maryland’s District 7, long held by Rep. Elijah Cummings, who died last year. Republican Kimberly Klacik spent $7.3 million, significantly more than the $702,000 spent by Kweisi Mfume, who won a special election to replace Cummings and was running to retain his seat in November and raised $1 million in the run-up to the race.

When it comes to outside money groups, spending heavily in districts with high profile candidates can help raise money for other races.

“Some of the groups running ads against them can use that to raise money for their own purposes — they can raise money in actually competitive districts,” Quinn said.

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For candidates, all the exposure from raising and spending money — even in a race they’re unlikely to win — can help raise their own profiles.

“Especially this year with online giving from small donors at an all-time high, it’s really easy to say to people in Arizona or North Dakota or Oregon: ‘Hey, I’m running against Ilhan,’” and raise money, Quinn said.

While this tactic was employed by Republicans and Republican-affiliated groups in House races this year, it isn’t limited to Republicans.

Democrats and groups aligned with them used the tactic in races like Kentucky’s Senate race, where Democrats raised and spent a huge amount of money in pursuit of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s seat.

McConnell won the race with 58 percent of the vote, compared to Democratic challenger Amy McGrath’s 38 percent.

“Amy McGrath was not going to win,” Quinn said.