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Attack ads from super-sized outside groups frustrate ‘outspent’ legislative candidates

Brian Halliday
The complaints come from both sides, but the howls over negative campaign ads are louder this year from Republicans, who were outspent two-to-one by groups aligned with the DFL.

Political “identify theft.”  That’s how some candidates and election watchdogs describe the explosion of negative ads financed by outside groups in the 2012 Minnesota legislative campaigns.      

“The candidates are being defined by an outside entity,” said Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. “This election has been the clearest demonstration of that yet.”

The ads are drawing the board’s scrutiny. With all the outside spending, “It’s a problem because the candidate’s voice is the weakest voice being heard. That’s generally the consensus of the board right now,” Goldsmith said.

Candidates are limited to spending $34,000 for a House race and $68,000 for a Senate seat.  But when the final campaign reports come in early next year, many legislative races will hit the low six figures in spending, and a few races could hit the half-million dollar mark.  Most of that money will come from groups far removed from the candidate’s control.

Republican Pam Wolf, defeated in her try for a second term as state senator from Anoka, Coon Rapids and Blaine, said that with 34 separate pieces of mail attacking her, voters had no idea who she really was.

“The tone of the pieces and the statements that were made were way over the top,” she said.  “One piece said I made it a crime to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and diabetes because I oppose human cloning. But I don’t oppose stem cell research.”

Wolf’s vote against human cloning is the typical mechanism used in negative ads to suggest a more extreme position than a candidate truly holds.

In the Senate District 49 race in Edina and Bloomington, the DFL Party, for example, used a series of procedural votes to claim that Republican Keith Downey voted against women by denying funding for mammograms and repealing equal pay laws.

His opponent was attacked, too. When a voting history is lacking, as in the case of Downey’s successful DFL challenger Melisa Franzen, the attack is less precise but no less definitive. “Melisa Franzen.  Endorsed by unions. Radical plans,” reads a flyer prepared and paid for by the Freedom Club.

The complaints come from both sides, but the howls over negative campaign ads are louder this year from Republicans, who were outspent two-to-one by groups aligned with the DFL.

Many Republicans, such as Wolf and Downey, were targeted with dozens of different negative ads. There were “two or three pieces a day” at the end of the campaign, according to Wolf.  “Who would have expected the police officers to start a PAC?” 

Public Safety Matters, a group that describes itself as an independent, nonpartisan association of law officers, took issue with Wolf’s vote to reduce Local Government Aid (LGA). In a flyer, it accused her of jeopardizing public safety in Blaine and Coon Rapids. 

The claim, she says, is an outright lie. “None of my cities had a cut in LGA. No deputies were let go because of funding,” she said.

Wolf and other candidates who say they were targets of false advertising have limited ways of finding relief. The state law that addresses false campaign statements comes under the jurisdiction of the Office of Administrative Hearings, which adjudicates but does not investigate.

That being the case, Wolf says, “ I think there should be some place where voters should be able to look at the resources to find out how the mailer got to this conclusion.”

“It’s an interesting question and an interesting concept,” Goldsmith said when told of the Wolf complaint. “[But] there’s no government agency that would have jurisdiction or even an interest in doing this,” he said.

The 2012 elections have left the campaign finance board with its own flood of spending problems to resolve, specifically disclosure of contributions to independent groups. The board is concerned with groups that avoid Minnesota’s disclosure laws because they exist as “education,” not political, entities. 

“They would fall through the cracks of our disclosure laws, so you may not know who the group is and where they get their money from. The board is looking at considering legislative recommendations on that,” said Goldsmith.  But, Goldsmith acknowledged, that kind of change would have no effect on the amount and tone of outside spending.

And it won’t help a candidate trying to get back to civilian life. “When we return back to our ‘real’ jobs, it is difficult if our character has been attacked during a campaign,” said Wolf, a teacher. “They said I was horrible for education, horrible for public safety, that I voted against funding for Alzheimer’s. Now I have to go apply for a teaching job.”

Wolf suggests that laws should be tightened to require more factual campaign claims with better sources, “so voters can see what the statements are really based on.” 

But, the solution to the outsized advantage of independent spending may lie in expanding the power of the candidate, not in limiting the speech of groups on the outside.

With the prospect of proposals from the campaign finance board and the looming governor’s race in 2014, it’s possible that the Legislature would consider several campaign finance changes, including raising the candidate spending limits — to make the weak candidates’ voices a little stronger.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/19/2012 - 09:51 am.

    Caricature is easy when there is no nuance.

    When a party essentially votes in lock-step, especially in high-profile, high-heat issues like “human cloning ” (a really pressing issue for the Minnesota legislature !?!?), it’s very easy to paint all in that party with the same brush, especially when the multiple, detailed ramifications of the issue are not investigated.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/19/2012 - 10:06 am.

    This is just funny.

    Republicans created the current election “tone” back in the 70s when they decided to pursue a politics of division using one wedge issue after another and elevating minor cultural differences to the status of crises. As the decades went by Republican attacks and partisanship multiplied and became increasingly hysterical. Intellectual dishonesty and hysteria has become the hallmark of conservative intellectuals from Jason Lewis to Anne Coulter who literally argued that being a liberal is an act of treason. Mean spirited and dishonest campaigns against immigrants, abortion, gay and lesbians, and anyone who isn’t basically a Christian fundamentalists became the cornerstone Republican politics combined with economic plans designed to impoverish the majority of Americans for the benefit of the few at the top. All of this required prodigious levels of dishonesty and deception.

    Every single one of this Republicans now complaining about the dishonesty of the campaigns was telling voters that they’d balanced the budget, as if their Enron accounting tricks had actually balanced revenue and spending. This was the biggest lie off the entire election. Add to that the Voter ID fiasco, and the Marriage Restriction amendment. They promised a laser focus on jobs and deliver meaningless votes against human cloning and can’t figure out why they lost elections? They sign pledges to Grover Norquist and cut ALG but expect to be off the hook for the damage it does, and the damage it’s already done before they got elected.

    Here’s what went wrong: First let us not forget that this unlimited spending we’re all bemoaning was a Republican idea in the fist place. The all cheered Citizen’s United as a victory for the free markets and the right to champion the candidate of your choice. The judges that made that decision were placed on the courts by Republicans with a mandate to issue such rulings. The problem is that the Republicans have become so divorced from reality that it never occurred to them that they could get outspent. It never occurred to them that hoi polloi could outspend the Koch brothers. Just like it didn’t occur to them that popular opinion can change and doesn’t necessarily convert into constitutional amendments.

    It also didn’t occur them that the tilted political landscape they spend decades trying build could tilt against them. They thought they could run on hysteria, perpetual crises, and wedge issues forever but eventually people get tired of it, eventually people fight back. They thought they could lob one hand grenade after another and label any response as class warfare, liberalism, or an attack on traditional values forever. Turns out that war, whether it be on behalf of territory, class, economics, politics, or culture, is bad idea. And like almost everyone who ever starts such wars, it never occurred to these Republicans that they could lose, and that the toxic landscape they were producing would poison everyone, not the just the “liberals”.

    All I can say to these Republicans is you guys created this political landscape, and you did it deliberately. You did it because you thought it would give you the edge. You thought debates and agendas devoid of reliable facts, logic, or reason would work for you. For a long time it actually did work but in the end it has no legs because it requires endless hysteria sustained by increasing levels of hypocrisy and deception.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/19/2012 - 10:48 am.


    You mean that Citizens United created a monster? Some of those attack ads are fair (you voted to repeal equal pay laws? You probably deserve the negatives) and others are not (human cloning is not stem cell research or necessary for Alzheimer’s research). The thing is, my sympathy is somewhat limited. This is what a “free market” does when it’s left without boundaries. And it’s funny that the Republicans want limited government–until it affects them. “The government oughta educate people on politics?” Not according to the GOP platform–less government, less regulation, less taxes. Get used to it or change your platform (and act on it!). Don’t ask the government to do something you don’t want to pay for. And if you think that the private sector will do it…hehehehe…yeah, you’ll get the best opinion that money can buy from the left or right.

  4. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 11/19/2012 - 11:04 am.


    For the past three election cycles prior to this year, I was active on campaigns trying to unseat incumbent GOP office holders in my district. Each election in the last two weeks of the campaign, our friendly MN Business Partnership and MN Chamber of Commerce blasted my candidates with a daily dose or double dose of negativity with a flyer in the mailbox. The GOP did not seem to mind that!

  5. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/19/2012 - 11:09 am.

    Good for the goose?

    This was not a one-way street.

    In the case of Pam Wolf, I know that several groups spent a lot of money trying to smear her opponent, former State Rep. Alice Johnson, too. And they were pretty awful, too.

    All I am saying is: if candidates hate this kind of thing so much why aren’t they attacking both sides – not just the ones that angered them.

  6. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 11/19/2012 - 11:31 am.

    I’m shedding crocodile tears

    Funny I didn’t see a lot of hand wringing 2 years ago when the Chamber of Commerce overwhelmed the airwaves with their pro-GOP campaign.

  7. Submitted by Susan McNerney on 11/19/2012 - 12:01 pm.

    Er, Pam Wolfe

    has been a rubber-stamp for a GOP majority with incredibly extreme positions. That the DFL side didn’t go after her on her real offenses, and the offenses of the party she supports, was a stroke of luck on her part and gave her a better chance than she deserved. For example, she is vehemently anti-choice, and has voted this year for burdensome new requirements on women’s health clinics that provide abortions. These types of laws are a tactic use by the GOP in many states to essentially reverse roe v wade without having to wait for a supreme court decision – they just make it impossible for women in terrible situations to get the care they need.

    I live in her district, and I donated money to her opponent. It’s absolutely untrue that she was “not heard”. I got quite a bit of junk mail from her, not just in my mailbox but also attached to my door (even after I had donated to her opponent – it appears they had no strategy for which voters they were contacting). The junk mail from her side was hyperbolic tea-party stuff and probably made Wolfe look even worse to the average independent voter.

    I’ll tell you this, too: I saw a lot of Wolf activity in my neighborhood, which is one of the most wealthy, and republican, precincts in the district. She spent an awful lot of time here, with her little car and it’s 1990’s-era high school student council signage, apparently trying to get out the base. I had to wonder how much time she spent in the southern part of the district, where voters are more working class. I looked at precinct totals in some of those areas and they were staunchly democratic.

    In any case, I suppose her unwillingness to admit her own shortcomings as a legislator and a candidate bodes well for the DFL in the future. The GOP won’t get out of this hole without some serious soul-searching.

  8. Submitted by Nancy Beach on 11/19/2012 - 12:12 pm.

    Hear! Hear!

    My first thought as I read Cyndy Brucato’s piece was, “Who is responsible for Citizen’s United?” The two previous comments exactly capture and expand on that thought. Now, will the Republicans in the Congress and Legislature support efforts to change this landscape? We’ll see, but I doubt it. Hope I’m wrong.

  9. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 11/19/2012 - 12:46 pm.

    Yes, I got a chuckle out of this article also. Everyone knows that all of those offended Republicans have participated in negative campaigning, or would do so if given the chance. Democrats apparently just beat them at their own game this year.

  10. Submitted by David Broden on 11/19/2012 - 12:55 pm.

    Postive Candidate Messages vs. Big PAC Impact

    Once again the GOP is focused on the wrong issue. The problem with GOP candiates is simple–no postive programs/proposals– committment to Grover Norquist pledge over responsiblity to the State of Mn (note Norquist in the greater than the constitution or elected responsiblity)– an image of No vs seeking to do what is right regarding Minnesota. This is simply putting GOOD GOVERNMENT first and Power Politics Second. Good Government campaigns alway have a winning chance when that is first– good politics then follows. The voters of Mn deserve credit for selecting those who seem to offer real solutions (now will the DFL follow through even if they did not have much of a positive approach either).The GOP must get over the idea that anything government does is too much and back to redesign of government to do the smart thing needed in education– tax reform–infrastructure-economic development and innovation in how Mn government works– that will get votes. With a good government message the opposing Big PACS has a much smaller target to attack and the candidate has something that the voter willl connect to. I have managed campaigns over 45 years and been in the center of fund raising and campaign themes– seldom does a NO approach win or even become competitive– the voters are smart and sort this out. Bottom line is the the MN GOP lost the legislature because of focus on Power Poltics not Good Government messages that lead to good politics. Sometimes a loss is needed to make the adjustments and sweep the terrain clean for fresh thoughts-_Mn will do that again and again thanks to the voters communication thru the ballot.

    Dave Broden

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/19/2012 - 01:09 pm.

    Self-inflicted wound

    For the most part, and speaking as an old guy who remembers political campaigns from the 1960s, Paul Udstrand seems correct. To a significant degree, Republicans have been hoist by their own petard. Having created the modern version of the negative campaign (some version of which goes back to the very first election in all probability), having mastered the art of both innuendo and outside financing, and having specialized in campaigns and candidates that are largely fact-free, Republicans should not be overly surprised when the house of cards comes down around their ears.

    Live by the sword, die by the sword. It doesn’t make for very civilized politics, but it wasn’t invented and perfected by wishy-washy and overly tolerant Democrats. The people now suffering are the inventors of this style of campaigning. Like a lot of other SCOTUS decisions, Citizens United can cut both ways, though Republicans apparently didn’t think of that detail.

  12. Submitted by Rich Crose on 11/19/2012 - 01:49 pm.


    Republicans calling for more government regulations!

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/19/2012 - 06:03 pm.

    Building on Broden

    Building on what Broden said, I think it’s important to remember that someone around here once observed that the Republican could win elections, they just had no idea how to govern. Now their having trouble winning elections because they failed to govern. This is what happens when a political party organizes itself around the principle of dismantling the government. The Republican message ended up being: “if your against the same stuff we’re against vote for us”. In the end there was nothing to vote for because people who don’t believe the government should do anything can’t imagine how to use the government to get stuff done. Romney’s plan apparently, like so many typical American CEOs was to pretend it was someone elses problem. Romney and the Republican’s have been promising essentially to do nothing so that the private sector magic could manifest itself. And they did in fact do nothing. They were so focused on doing nothing that the party became populated with politicians, economist, and intellectuals who had no idea how to do anything. No wonder we got gridlock when they got in power.

    I think people want a government that works, and works for them. People obviously want a government that can do something about unemployment, economic stability, quality of life, health care, infrastructure etc. For a few decades there people kind of thought the private sector would work it out but that delusion may finally be wearing off (civilization invented government for reason). Why vote for a president who plans to nothing except let someone else do something? After decades of promising that less government or immobilized government would produce a capitalist utopia only to find ourselves in a prolonged recession, people are looking for someone who knows how to run a government, and Republicans just don’t fit the bill.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/19/2012 - 08:40 pm.

      Vote For Me

      They got elected on a platform of “Government Doesn’t Work!” Once elected they set out to prove it. Just like the Bush Admin. and Katrina.

  14. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 11/19/2012 - 06:52 pm.

    Political ads

    We need several changes, I. ban super pacs, 2. make it a criminal offense to intentionally or unintentionally make false statements in an ad, 3. Limit the amount of spending a candidate can spend per ad, 4. for every dollar a candidate spends on political advertising they must donate in cash an equal amount to charity prior to the date the ad runs, and 5. money donated to candidates by outside sources must be declared as personal income by the candidate.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/21/2012 - 09:31 am.

      About those charities . . . . . . .

      Regarding your point #4: There would have to be something done about the phony “charities” of the sort created by Karl Rove (e.g. “Crossroads GPS” which he presents as a 501(c)(4) in support of “social welfare”).

      I swear, nobody can come up with a way to game the system like a Republican.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/20/2012 - 09:21 am.


    What we need is a big government solution. Limit ALL outside financing by providing public funding to qualifying candidates. Require that TV, newspapers, and radio provide minimum amount of free space and air time to candidates. And re-implement the Equal Time rules that Reagan wiped out. That way if any candidate or third party did run an ad containing outright falsehoods the media would have to provide free air time for rebuttal. That would ratchet up the bar for these outside campaign ads since media are loath to provide free space and air time.

    Sooner or later we’re going to have reverse this notion that spending money is “speech” and that corporations are people. However I don’t see any constitutional way to limit the campaign calender or send people to jail for making misleading campaign commercials.

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/20/2012 - 09:54 am.

    The denial is also interesting

    These Republicans complain that money beat them when in fact is was their own mediocrity and failure to lead. In fact, the MN Republican party has been running on mediocrity for a decade now, they actually think a legislative session that accomplishes nothing is a GOOD session because only “big” government does things for people. One the Republicans that ran for a house seat here in St. Louis Park actually said that to me in person when I asked why he was running for government since he clearly didn’t believe in government… he actually wanted to get elected so he could make sure the government didn’t do anything. This is simply absurd.

    Republicans were never interested in gold standard education systems, or universities, or infrastructure. Palwenty actually said in a meeting once that “average” was good enough for MN.

    This Republican principle of government immobility reached it’s zenith in 2010. As promised, when handed the reigns of government MN Republicans delivered the most bizarre legislative fiasco in MN history. They created a brand new revenue stream for a billionaire welfare program and shut the government down on behalf the of the 1%. Instead of a laser focus on jobs they delivered new bills banning human cloning, compared poor people to wild animals, and put two hugely divisive amendments on the ballot. And to top it all off they stuck their heads in the sand and used even more Enron accounting to hide the states budget deficit instead of resolving it. And now they think they lost because they got outspent and drowned out?

    We’re not even talking about the fact that this “value” driven party has become a magnet for hypocrites, liars, and jerks. That’s a whole nuther story.

    The truth is Republicans are currently literally incapable of producing any viable government programs because the very notion that a government could promote an economy or solve problems by actually doing something rather than dismantling itself is completely incomprehensible to them. Expecting the Republicans to produce any kind of government program that will strengthen economies or create jobs is like expecting a dog to play the violin. I think voters finally figured that out. I wish they’d figured it out sooner.

    So the know-nothings met the do-nothings and can’t figure why they didn’t get re-elected?

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