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Why ‘donor alliance’ groups may be the most powerful force in elections today

According to the Committee on States, donor groups gave $7 million dollars to Minnesota outfits like Alliance for a Better Minnesota.

Well funded, data driven, and largely anonymous “donor alliance” groups are as much responsible for the DFL sweep of statewide offices — and for Republican victories in the Minnesota House of Representatives — as any individual candidate or independent expenditure organization.

That’s the takeaway from a memo dated October 21 from a national liberal group, the Committee on States, which reveals how potent these groups have become in state elections, largely through unlimited contributions and well-coordinated affiliate organizations.

“This cycle, twenty functional state-based donor alliances… will have invested over $45 million into proven, research-driven state-based progressive political infrastructure,” the memo states.

Groups like the Committee on States, a partner of Democracy Alliance — a national network of wealthy liberal donors — do not actually make contributions directly to parties or candidates. Instead, they connect likeminded givers to approved organizations, like the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, an independent expenditure group that spends its money on television and online advertising supporting Democratic candidates.

According to the Committee on States, such donor groups gave $7 million dollars to Minnesota outfits like ABM. Of the 20 targeted states, Minnesota was second in these kinds of contributions only to Wisconsin, which received $9 million. “If the national donors listed above had not coalesced around the COS strategy, then the infrastructure across these important states would be … nonexistent,” the memo reported.

Minnesota Republicans have yet to create a coordinating structure comparable to that of Democrats, but they came close in terms of dollars this election cycle. A top party official estimates that outside groups working to elect Republican state House members spent together about $5 million.  

About $2 million of that came from the MN Action Network. Like ABM, it’s a non-profit education and advocacy group — designated a 501(c)(4) — that legally receives contributions from donors whose names are not required to be disclosed.

While Alliance for a Better Minnesota is the undisputed leader in this category, the MN Action Network, founded by former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, is hardly a bit player. During the most recent cycle, it provided polling, opposition research and issue advocacy advertising on mail, radio, TV, and online — measures that proved critical in electing the incoming Republican House majority.    

Under the current law, non-profit 501(c)(4) like MN Action Network cannot communicate with candidates, but the information finds its way to like-minded groups. For example, political vendors that do the work for 501(c)(4) can choose to disclose voter data with other non-candidate clients. Such groups will report their final campaign numbers for 2014 on February 2. A MinnPost analysis estimated that the 20 largest of these organizations operating in Minnesota spent $18 million on behalf of statewide and legislative candidates.

But its clear that the growing power behind the throne in Minnesota (and other states) are donor groups like the Committee on States. And the source of that funding will not appear on a campaign finance report.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/01/2014 - 12:59 pm.

    It’s all dark money. Anonymous and powerful and making a smallish group of very wealthy individuals (and companies) able to influence, if not control completely, our political scene.

    The naivete of our Supreme Court majority in the Citizens United case (“big money is okay, as long as sources are identified”), is glaring in these figures of how distorted our politics now are by secret wealth spent to bend results.

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